This spring, Harvard and Oxford law professor (and Berkman Center colleague) Jonathan Zittrain published “The Generative Internet,” a paper that looks at the future of general-purpose technology (such as PCs). As he’s written:
I think it’s critically important that users retain general purpose PCs, even some with proprietary OSes, instead of “information appliances.” I fear these appliances, like TiVo, can come to predominate — or that the PC itself will morph towards becoming one, with new gatekeepers determining what code will or won’t run on them, rather than the users themselves.
His theory held, in part, that people might be willing to cede control to the gatekeepers in part because of the proliferation of security threats. If the only way to have “safe computing” was to lock down our machines — even from our own tinkering — perhaps people would prefer that, he wondered.
Participants agreed we need need better tools to help deal with the threats without giving up the control that is vital to our fundamental freedoms. Might it be possible, for example, to develop a software tool that could live on general purpose computers and, in the background, gather data in a way that would collectively sniff out threats while not intruding on privacy?
In that same context, might such a tool be useful in another way: to keep an eye on whether the owners of the data networks were using them in ways that violated some of the basic rules of the road. Could we keep an eye on whether the phone and cable companies, which want to determine what content gets delivered in what order and at what speed, are abusing that power?
The phone and cable giants are on the verge of being granted such power by a Congress that seems to be in the pocket of these former monopolists. And that potential for discrimination is at the crux of the debate over what many call “network neutrality.”
The broad and important question is: are there actual violations of Net Neutrality happening today? Are ISPs favoring services they offer by disadvantaging competitors on the ISPs’ network? If violations were to occur, how would they be detected and verified? Even those of us who believe that marketplace should regulate Net Neutrality (which requires more than a duopoly offering broadband access) know that a market can only operate efficiently when accurate and timely information is available.
We citizens at the end of our Internet connections are well placed to gather the data needed; but we don’t yet have the right tools to do so. I’m no longer technically competent to write these tools but I’m sure a lot of you are. It is also possible that both ISPs and vendors of services which might be blocked will make tools available.
Talk about idea convergence.
When smart thinkers like these guys are thinking along similar lines, the obvious thing to do is put them in the same room. So on Tuesday, August 8, Tom is coming down to the Berkman Center to talk about all of this (here’s his post about the session). There may still be space available to attend in person; to learn more, click here. If you can’t come, or are too late to get a seat, the event will be webcast.