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Zittrain's 'U.S. 1.0' advice for Web 2.5

Chatting up his newly published book, Oxford professor suggests that the Internet is at "a constitutional moment," in need of a system of power checks and balances.

SAN FRANCISCO--Jonathan Zittrain recently published a terrific book with the suggestive title The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It. But as I settled into my seat to report on his talk at the Web 2.0 Expo here Thursday, the Internet stopped me.

Jonathan Zittrain

Dead in my tracks.

It was a confluence of events. In a switcheroo, what we witnessed was actually "virtual Zittrain." The good professor--he teaches Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University and is the co-founder of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society--appeared on the big screen in a brief pre-recorded disquisition about the state of Internet computing.

The show organizers did arrange with Zittrain to follow up with the audience on a Meebo chat room. (You can follow the archived chat conversation). Unfortunately, the wireless connectivity here at Moscone Center has been flaky all morning, and I spent half of the duration of his presentation trying to get a live connection. So was my welcome to Web-minus-2.0.)

Zittrain covered familiar ground from his book, starting off by noting that his writings may make many of the people in the audience "dyspeptic." (I'm sure that word sent half the people here scrambling for online dictionaries.)

He painted a troubling picture of the direction in which technology is heading. Zittrain's main concern is that consumers may inadvertently be making surveillance of individuals easier for companies and government agencies.

In his writings, Zittrain has raised a red flag over the hidden price paid by consumers who willingly adopted so-called closed devices in return for a promise of stability. Also, he has concerns about the trade-offs involved when smaller applications developers agree to terms set by big platform makers.

Zittrain suggested that we're at "a constitutional moment" akin to the founding of the United States. "The original plan--U.S. 1.0--was: everyone's really nice, and if not, we'll just move west. The framers of the U.S. Constitution--U.S. 2.0--saw that not everyone could get along, and needed a system of checks and balances."

He raised an interesting analogy by pointing out the separation-of-powers doctrine famously articulated by James Madison (and I should add Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in the Federalist Papers), which articulated reasons to avoid investing in any single institution with too much power.

Zittrain finished up with a call for ad hoc "bottom-up" citizen community-based models to take the lead. Otherwise, he cautioned, we deserve the future that's otherwise heading our way.