Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Without a Net

Jonathan Zittrain has a terrific essay at legalaffairs about the future of the Internet.

"The Internet and the PC were built to allow third parties to dream up and implement new uses for the rest of us. Such openness to outside innovation has allowed each, in its relatively brief life span, to be in a perpetual state of transformation and surprise. Many of the features we now find so commonplace as to be inevitable were not anticipated by network operators, hardware manufacturers, and the general public until someone—remarkably often, an amateur—coded a fascinating experimental application and set it loose through a cascade of floppy disks, and later over the Internet. This generative substrate created the Internet as we know it, yet it is almost certain to be swept away in the aftermath of a global Internet meltdown. We must act now to preserve it, or the future of consumer information technology, though safe, will be bleak...

The proprietary networks blew it. They thought that they were competing against one another, and their executives were still pondering whether AOL would beat CompuServe when the Internet subsumed them all.

The Net did so in large part because of its "hourglass" architecture and the philosophy behind it. The Internet's designers were principally university and government researchers and employees of information technology companies who worked on the project pro bono. The network design was an hourglass because it was broad at the bottom and top and narrow in the middle. At the bottom was the physical layer—the actual wires or radio waves through which the network would operate. At the top was the applications layer—the uses to which the network would be put. Here, the designers were agnostic; they were interested in all sorts of uses, and had no business model meant to capitalize on the success of one application over another. In the middle was a tightly designed set of protocols, publicly available to all to adopt, that tied together the top and the bottom. Any device could be taught to "speak" Internet Protocol, be assigned a numeric identity, and then be able to communicate directly with any other device on the network, unmediated by any authority.

Hourglass architecture is extraordinary: It makes network connectivity an invisible background commodity, separating the act of communicating from the applications that can shape and channel this communication, scattering the production of the latter to the four winds. In other words, the Net passes data along, and leaves it to millions of programmers to decide what users might want to do with that data...

THE MODERN INTERNET IS AT A WATERSHED MOMENT. Its generativity, and that of the PC, has produced extraordinary progress in the development of information technology, which in turn has led to extraordinary progress in the development of forms of creative and political expression. Regulatory authorities have applauded this progress, but many are increasingly concerned by its excesses. To them, the experimentalist spirit that made the most of this generativity seems out of place now that millions of business and home users rely on the Internet and PCs to serve scores of functions vital to everyday life.

The challenge facing those interested in a vibrant global Internet is to maintain that experimentalist spirit in the face of these pressures...

What is needed at this point, above all else, is a 21st century international Manhattan Project which brings together people of good faith in government, academia, and the private sector for the purpose of shoring up the miraculous information technology grid that is too easy to take for granted and whose seeming self-maintenance has led us into an undue complacence. The group's charter would embrace the ethos of amateur innovation while being clear-eyed about the ways in which the research Internet and hobbyist PC of the 1970s and 1980s are straining under the pressures of serving as the world's information backbone.

The transition to a networking infrastructure that is more secure yet roughly as dynamic as the current one will not be smooth. A decentralized and, more important, exuberantly anarchic Internet does not readily lend itself to collective action. But the danger is real and growing. We can act now to correct the vulnerabilities and ensure that those who wish to contribute to the global information grid can continue to do so without having to occupy the privileged perches of established firms or powerful governments, or conduct themselves outside the law.

Or we can wait for disaster to strike and, in the time it takes to replace today's PCs with a 21st-century Mr. Coffee, lose the Internet as we know it."

The article is adapted from his forthcoming book, The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It.

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