Thursday, March 23, 2006

Isenberg: The Internet Experiment is not Finished

David Isenberg has been thinking about Jonathan Zittrain's ideas on the future of the Net. (Click on the article to zoom in).

"Zittrain proposes to preserve the Internet
in all its wildness, danger and opportunity by creating
another, parallel Internet that would be controlled,
secure, tame and predictable. The wild "red" Internet
and the tame "green" Internet would coexist within the
same end-user computer, where a software switch would
toggle between the two. He says that the computer user
could switch back and forth, "to ensure that valuable or
sensitive data was created and stored in the 'green'
mode, leaving 'red' mode for experimentation and play."

Zittrain sees problems with this, but thinks they're
workable. He says that Internet service providers might
charge more for a red connection, presuming that red
will be subject to more volume and abuse. He observes
that we will need a way of certifying green
applications, perhaps an "Underwriters Lab" for
software. And he sees a danger that the green machine,
"might be so restrictively conceived that most users
would find it unpalatable."

I see even more problems. Some of the Internet's value
lies beyond its generativity. There's huge value in the
ability to try out new ideas quickly and cheaply on
target markets, with real customers using real
applications. Suppose an innovator had an idea that
might appeal to typical green customers but could only
try the idea out on red users. Or, suppose the
gatekeepers of green charged too much to test new, red
ideas. The market test baby might go down the drain
unnoticed in the red bathwater...

There's another path between the Scylla of an Internet
where innovation is illegal and the Charybdis of an
Internet where innovation and problems are red-walled
against everyday use. This is the creation of green
applications on an otherwise red Internet. It's
happening today. My email client silently shuffles spam
into a junk mailbox and warns me about incoming viruses.
My iTunes music player has light digital rights
management that puts some controls on copying. My
browser suppresses pop-up ads and lets me manage cookies
if I want to endure that hassle to shield my privacy.
These programs – and others – will get better, smarter
and easier to use securely over time, thanks to the
generativity of the Internet exactly as it exists today."

Recommended. There are problems with both schemes but once the network-halting, computer-destroying digital Pearl Harbor event finally hits the Net, Jonathan's might be the only, at least temporarily, "politically acceptable" response. In either case the route to continuing to facilitate the innovation generativity of the Net and the protection of the Network and its ends from malware has got to be via tapping into the intelligence at the ends of the network. Though in terms of critical decision making on network design we should beware of popularity contests and always remember the base rate fallacy.

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