TOC The future of the Internet rolls on roles Your Turn

May 20, 2008

In response to Jonathan Zittrain's call to help protect "the Future of the Internet" (1), we claimed last week the solution must combine a new, open platform based on eprivacy and a new business model financed from the marketing needs of organizations. While the technical achievements of ePrio combined with the business approach of Craigslist offers a proof of concept, it remains to articulate the solution.

Granted, according to a New York Time editorial (*) one US presidential candidate must support the right of individuals to control their personal data. If Google were to offer the IRS free online software services against access to income tax returns for no more than 18 months, Mrs. John McCain would not be amused, would she? Granted too, ePrio operates today in the kind of obscure backwater Zittrain sees as the breeding ground for ultimate success. But anecdotal evidence alone is not enough. What are the key exhibits behind the solution and what do they mean?

First, to restore user confidence in the Internet, the solution must enforce responsible behavior, what Zittrain calls accountability. From a moral perspective it requires the ability to link elementary actions back to their authors. Without reliable traceability and identity mechanisms, the alternative is universal monitoring, i.e. to turn all users into perpetual minors. "Privacy, Identity, Responsibility" is our motto for a reason.

Assigning a unique ID to individuals and using it for all purposes causes a minor inconvenience however. It creates a lucrative business for ID thieves and tempts would-be Big Brothers. Like Oink, cited by Zittrain, our solution requires new users to be invited by a current user. It then chains invitations by ids and records these chains. Nobody ever knows more than one's own cooptation list and nothing prevents users from soliciting multiple sponsors. Confidentiality is clearly respected, yet harmful behavior can always be traced back up the id chain to "the first user" and down again to unmask either the party known to be responsible for it or an enabling party which explicitly refuses to let the trace proceed (2).

Responsibility must also include an economic component. Today's email treats receiver's attention as a free resource. As a result receivers bear all the costs of spam and spammers enjoy all the benefits. Our solution lets receivers filter the flow of information at its source, i.e. the sender side. The higher a sender's activity, the higher its cost of processing permission filters and the tougher the audit to which it must submit lest it bypass restraints. Another imbalance is found today between advertising networks and consumers relative to customer's privacy. Our solution gives consumers control of their personal data and suppresses the need for central collection and aggregation, thereby rebalancing market forces. Consumers are no angels either but egregious piracy involves large scale information distribution, an activity which does not escape our responsibility mechanisms.

Second, to allow users to reach out to one another, the solution must enable robust recommendation mechanisms to manage what Zittrain calls reputation. This is vital, as Lucy Kellaway suggests as she muses on online dating (**). These fillips however have already covered the topic at great length (3). Use the rule of three to manage recommendations. And ensure recommenders remain decentralized. Were indeed Lucy Kellaway's "online rating agency" to collect dating data on a Google scale, what would prevent its head from running the eugenics program of Plato's Republic?

Third, in describing software architecture, Zittrain shows how layers enable innovators to focus on what they know best, confident the rest will take care of itself. But a modern open platform is more than a piece of software, it weaves many user roles into a complex social fabric. Wikipedia have readers, writers, editors, administrators. Besides recommenders and inviters, our solution has roles to create match and search categories, administer communication servers and record id invitation chains. Roles are to the social fabric what layers are to software architecture (4).

Today per force ePrio must play most of the roles its solution calls for. Its ambition however is directed to developing and promoting a confidential environment for personalized interactions, a distinct software layer which rests on top of a security layer cobbled out of the best tools available. Running itself on the Java Virtual Machine, this bit of plumbing implements some of the virtual machine features proposed by Zittrain. Picture a local container with a valve which lets in external interactions to run under the influence of user data but prevent any data from leaking out. As a result rather than a precondition of an interaction, the user may explicitly open the valve and transmit personal data back to the correspondent concerned. To fight confidence games, the environment also maintains a log of all outgoing data and destination ids. You trick, we track.

All basic interactions being carried out by end point plumbing controlled by two correspondents, there is no need to relax net neutrality. In fact the attempt of pipe providers to favor their own contents under cover of objective technical considerations is a vivid illustration of how role conflation creates conflicts of interest. In an editorial on the need to check Google's dominance, the Financial Times calls for "regulators [to be] vigilant" (***). But Google did not absorb DoubleClick by want of vigilance. What the FTC and the European Commission lacked was an antitrust law to forbid information recommenders from being personal data aggregators.

A framework to codify the discipline of roles would do to the information industries what the US Constitution did to political forces. Relevant checks and balances will hasten the birth of the next open platform and sustain generative freedom. Who will take on this meta-role?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) .......... Mrs. McCain's Money, editorial column (New York Times) - May 19, 2008
  • (**) ....... My marriage guidance would start with due diligence, by Lucy Kellaway (Financial Times) - May 19, 2008
  • (***) .... Emperor for life?, editorial column (Financial Times) - May 13, 2008
  • (1) The Future of the Internet And How to Stop It, by Jonathan Zittrain (Yale University Press) - 2008, 342 pages
  • (2) indeed it is not in the remit of open platforms to subvert traditional claims by the media to the right of protecting its sources.
  • (3) look up the theme "recommendation mechanisms" in the table of Major Themes for these fillips
  • (4) as Microsoft exploited its dominance by inflating its desktop operating system layer, Google is bent on inflating its information recommender's role
May 2008
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