The future of the internet — and how to stop it

Yesterday I recieved my copy of Jonathan Zittrain’s book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Zittrain is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.  When I first saw the title, I wondered why anyone would want to stop it?  So, I decided to read the book and find out.

Chapter 1 details the birth of the PC and its development. PCs are distinguished by their programmability; they can run software written by other parties. This is compared to the information appliance, an end-point box that the owner/user cannot modify and that only runs software controlled by one manufacturer.

Chapter 2 is entitled “The Battle of the Networks” The early years of the telephony system are used as a comparison point. AT&T began with a monopoly over equipment and infrastructure. AT&T tried to prevent other devices from using their network, and this battle was lost in court. The floodgates were opened for all sorts of other devices using the telephone network. This then evolved into services like CompuServe, AOL and Prodigy. Before the Internet there were bulletin board systems (BBS), turning any PC into an information system.  These BBS systems were connected via software called FIDOnet. These amateur innovations produced surprisingly functional results.  Next step – enter the Internet.

The Internet was designed by academics and engineers who had little concern for controlling users. It was started as a “for non-commercial purposes” enterprise, but began accepting commercial  interconnections in 1991.  A hobbyist wrote software for PC users to connect their computers to the Internet, called Winsock. With Windows 95, anyone with a PC could connect to the Internet. The Internet was owned by no one and anyone could use it.

Zittrain calls the principles that the Internet was built on “the procrastination principle” and the “trust your neighbor principle”. The procastination principle assumes that the problems of the network will be solved by others LATER.  The trust comes into play as we are trusting the people using this network to not negligently or intentionally disrupt it. Like leaving the front door unlocked… Users of the internet travel around with obscured identities. No data transmission is prioritized over any other.  The problems arise when this network designed by academics and purists is now used by the general populace who may not share the same ideals.

To be continued…


  1. There certainly appears to be a growing conflict between at least three parties vying to influence the direction of the Internet – commercial and corporate interests using it to make money, criminals and ne’er-do-wells that use it as a tool for theft, destruction, and havoc, and private users that want to use it for education, entertainment, and communication, but without intrusive measures that defeat privacy. Meanwhile, governments around the world, who are apt to be influenced heavily by one or more of these groups, try to implement policies of control that serve one group or another, or that serve their own ends of cultural control and security.

    It can be described as nothing more than a beautiful mess, I think. I’d fear if any of these groups took the majority of control, because I think we’d all suffer in the end.

  2. I’ve heard on the news from time to time that our US government is looking at ways to control the Internet. But I really wonder how that could happen. What James aptly describes as a “beautiful mess” also seems to be an unruly child–not at all easy to make behave. I suppose if we don’t pay attention, someone somewhere could exert inordinate control over our beloved Net. But in doing so, they would also probably remove all usefulness in it for themselves. Would any group really be willing to do that?

  3. James, your description of the conflict of internet control as a “beautiful mess” really grabbed my attention. As I lazily stroll through the internet, I usually don’t think about this conflict. I just expect “someone” (government?) to be watching out for the bad guys and keeping me safe. When I shop online or check my bank account I just expect the sites to be secure. I’d like to read more. Can you point me in the right direction?

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