TOC Dream jails, monitored freedom... Whither society? Your Turn

May 6, 2008

Are we living a new Golden Age? Are we leaving the new Golden Age? According to Jonathan Zittrain's new book, The Future of the Internet (1), reviewed by Richard Waters (*), the answer to the first question is yes and, lest we pay attention, yes again to the second. Zittrain's analysis rests on three arguments.

  • the Internet combined with the personal computer has gifted us with an open platform for creating, communicating and absorbing information. Zittrain shows convincingly how open platforms foster innovation by enticing everyone to contribute. Given the centrality of information in our time and in line with Yochai Benkler, he sees the rise of closed, centrally controlled systems as a threat to society's well being.
  • the issue is, openness taxes users' attention and enables spam, scams and viral infections. Replace the personal computer with a simpler appliance or turn it into a glorified terminal to access online software services and responsibility reverts together with control to manufacturers and service providers. To prevent harm to self and neighbor, users either exchange freedom for comfort or submit to preemptive surveillance.
  • while trading off control for protection is not a new concept, the network empowers central control as never before by eliminating "enforcement latency". Even when users buy a device, it remains "tethered" to its remote center which controls its every activation.
Advocate of individual empowerment, I fully support this analysis. Sensitive to the network potential for surveillance and the role of time, I find the disappearance of "enforcement latency" a point particularly well taken. I feel however two biases are at work in the book. One is a distrust of money. For me the lesson of Wikipedia is not so much that it was built on free contributions as that it could not have been anticipated by a central planner. The other is an optimistic view of liberal democracies and their ability to defend individual rights against governmental and corporate abuse.

As a result I contend Jonathan Zittrain has misunderstood the challenge privacy brings to the preservation of open "generative systems". This is paradoxical as the author devotes a whole chapter to the subject and delivers many astute observations. Cheap digital cameras turn all individuals into amateur paparazzi and force restaurants and other venues that limit public access open to everyone's potential gaze. In privacy, the younger generation values control over secrecy. Since one's reputation is a unique asset, one should be allowed to repudiate it as one declares bankruptcy. In his quest for solutions, Zittrain also makes excellent practical recommendations bearing on such essential concepts as identity and accountability.

The rub is that privacy is a unifying concept. Dividing threats, as Zittrain does, between a 1.0 version from organizations, past its prime, and a newly enhanced 2.0 version from individuals is a cute, but misleading distinction. Take Ian Fisher's report on how the outgoing Italian government posted online "the returns for all 40 million Italians who paid taxes in 2005" (**). Should we shrug this as so "1.0" ? Building on the strength of actual kidnappings in Mexico, enterprising criminals there have lately turned to "'virtual kidnappings' [to] exploit very real fears", Marc Lacey tells us (***). Surely they will welcome a public list of taxpayers as a convenient source of prospects. If I were rich and not yet famous, would I consider a 2.0 style YouTube exposé so much worse?

Do not expect better protection in the United States, where state and local governments abet ID theft, as shown by Mrs Betty Ostergren (2). In truth organizations and individuals act in symbiosis when it comes to attack privacy, the former with their systematic approach to aggregating information and monitoring behavior, the latter by selectively feeding and mining data repositories. Read David M. Halbfinger (****) on the trial of Pellicano, a private eye who tapped private individuals with access to the confidential records of large organizations. Déjà vu at Hewlett Packard.

There is another rub. Privacy, as Zittrain correctly pointed out, is about control rather than secrecy. He should have gone one step further and show control is about money. Look at targeted advertising, a rising threat to privacy in view of its potential financial impact. For individuals, it is a question of one's reputation, i.e. one's ability to get financial credit, affordable insurance and a desirable job. For organizations, it a question of valuation.

Stressing economics allows us to view the future of the Internet under a new perspective. Platform openness is determined in large part by the relative power of the dominant provider. IBM and Microsoft, the historic providers, have both gone through three phases. A rise, which combines disruptive technical and financial innovation with the generative appeal of openness to challenge the incumbent. Dominance, during which control is asserted as needed to extract maximum gains from quasi captive markets. Second-tier status, as the next platform changes the business model and antitrust pressures hobble monopolistic responses.

I argue that the current golden age is due to the gallant resilience with which Microsoft tackled the Internet revolution. Recall how it used its desktop dominance to crush Netscape's brazen attack by coopting its lopsided free browser strategy, before falling to Google's superior business model, free service backed by creating, targeting, rationing and auctioning ad space. To preserve the unique degree of "generative openness" achieved in the past decade, let us ask ourselves this simple question. What can prevent Google from fully exploiting its incipient dominance ?

A detailed answer grounded in privacy must await another fillip. Jonathan Zittrain's excellent book has already provided us with the building blocks.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) .......... Inherent risks of a locked-down cyberspace, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - April 24, 2008
  • (**) ....... Do the Rich Pay Taxes? Italy Tells All, by Ian Fisher (New York Times) - May 2, 2008
  • (***) .... 'Virtual Kidnappings' Exploit Very Real Fears, by Marc Lacey (New York Times) - April 29, 2008
  • (****) .. Pellicano on Pellicano: He Was No Mastermind, by David M. Halbfinger (New York Times) - May 1, 2008
  • (1) The Future of the Internet And How to Stop It, by Jonathan Zittrain (Yale University Press) - 2008, 342 pages
  • (2) see The Virginia Watchdog
May 2008
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