The premise behind Internet frameworks: open access or suffocating structure?

19 03 2010

When you search for material on the Internet, do you know how you come across the results that you view? Are there influences actively dictating what you view and what you do not have a chance to comprehend? In essence, these are some of the primary points focused on in Jonathan Zittrain’s book, The Future of the Internet.

Within this weighty yet interesting book Zittrain attempts to dissect the nature of the Internet’s DNA. Often times the Internet is though of being the ultimate example of pure openness, where anyone, anywhere can contribute anything for others to view, enjoy or revolt against. Specifically, Zittrain isolates the method for this occurrence into two distinct camps: generative nature and proprietary means.

The wider ranging of these two concepts is that of generative nature. Just as the name describes, “generativity considers how a system might grow or change over time as the uses of a technology by one group are shared with other individuals, thereby extending the generative platform (78).” The basic premise being that there is an active fostering of the possibility to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.

Contrasting this approach is the proprietary model comprised of the tethered appliance. In its most basic form, the appliance being either an Internet service provider or a physical product that locks users into using the said product as the exclusive means of accessing what is desired. Freedom to roam, explore, contribute or change the basic dynamics is largely lacking. Innovation is the curse instead of the buzz within this framework.

Zittrain pairs both of these approaches to online existence as we know it currently and explores associated issues with each one. A common, yet incredibly fundamental component of both approaches are security. It does not take much effort to realize the potential security problems arising from vast, open electronic networks where anyone can contribute content regardless what the intent may be. This is exactly how computer viruses gained prominence during the fledgling days of the Internet, as there was an unprotected network of interconnected computers completely willing to accept malicious code of it were introduced. This lack of care for purpose was exactly the motivation of early Internet programmers, who could have cared less about how the Internet was used. Instead, they only cared that the Internet was functional (28). Zittrain reflected upon these risks associated with this approach, “The most salient feature of a PC is its openness to new functionality with minimal gate keeping. This is also its greatest danger (57).”

Response to such vulnerabilities inherent from complete openness has been proprietary measures to provide great control to allow measured functionality. The upside to this approach is that greater security can result. However, the downside is limited accessibility to content and perspective. In an online environment of the twenty-first century, this is an extremely serious constraint to content with. Even if malicious actions can be reduced via the increase in tethered appliances among consumer markets to help ensure more stable performance, an entirely new risk emerges. Not just is content access controlled by a centralized authority but Those who control the tethered appliances can control the behavior undertaken with the advice in a number of ways: preemption, specific injunction, and surveillance (107).”

One thing is pretty clear; the Internet is here to stay. It is not going to disappear anytime soon. In turn, the continued functionality of Internetusability requires a balancing act when it comes to security by way of open platforms and securely controlled access. Over extending in either direction will only lead to revolt and possible disruption. A balanced approach is needed where security plays a distinct motivating role but open accessibility, determined by individual users, is weighted just as heavily. Zittrain suggests that a keen balance is necessary where regulation from within, among users, can actively assuage security fears if given the chance to work (102-103). Furthering this approach, he references the online encyclopedia Wikipedia as one example where users act as collective bastions in protecting the platform while still maintaining open access to almost anyone to view or contribute. Although I personally believe it is too early to know with certainty if a mainstream ethos of established boundaries is sweeping the Internet, I do think that lessons can be learned and applied to some degree from Wikipedia. The question remains, when will we know and will you be able to tell?

links for 2010-03-11

11 03 2010

If privacy and the Internet is a disparate match, is sacred personal space an endangered phenomenon?

5 03 2010

Privacy is something we think we know. However, if you asked someone to define privacy half a century ago, I can almost guarantee that his or her answer would be noticeably different from the answer someone in the present would provide. In essence, what we consider privacy is not what it used to be. A significant influence contributing to the changing perspective on privacy is the Internet.

The Internet is a vast, often uncontrollable, entity that has provided many significant breakthroughs in the ways humans interact. It in due to this influence that some claim the idea of privacy has been turned upside down. Having just completed Daniel Solove’s book, the future of reputation, I am forced to consider how privacy is morphing towards a potential extinction.

Although Solove presents numerous perspectives regarding privacy and personal reputation within online communities, several factors stood out to me in particular.

The first factor is age. When is too young for someone to be inputting their life’s details online for the entire world to absorb? Seven years old is too young in my opinion. This is an example that Solove referenced in that seven year olds are now blogging on the Internet. This presents several problems. For one thing, at seven years old, children are unable to perceive the repercussions of their actions. This is particularly true with regard to intangibles such as online, electronic submissions. Secondly, at such a young age, a person lacks the maturity to effectively weigh risk. In turn, tremendous vulnerability can spring from seemingly innocent blog posts. What happens if a child posts their home address or phone number? If a pedophile happens to be tracking the blog, a serious problem could spring from this seemingly innocent contribution to the online world. Furthermore, actions by minors online affect their parents, as parents are the ones who are legally responsible for their children’s conduct. This allows for the possibility that parents, in addition to their child, could face overtly negative consequences from sharing information online.

Underlying everyone of the privacy related issues examined in Solove’s book are norms. In Solove’s own words, “a norm is a rule of conduct, one less official than a law, but sometimes as improper to transgress…Norms are widely known and widely observed rules of social conduct (84).” That being said, norms serve as the foundation to individual and societal actions. As such, norms have traditionally provided everyone a sense of entitlement to live their life with a measured degree of secrecy, a separation between one self and the prying eyes and ears of others.

Please reread the prior sentence, placing emphasis on the word traditionally.

The Internet may be changing not just the premise of privacy but also the relevancy of the entire concept. One consideration Solove touches on in the book is if privacy has a place in the future? Will there be a need, desire or ability to maintain privacy as humans rapidly accelerate deeper into the twenty-first century? Pondering this possibility within group discussions, classmates of mine predicted what norms maybe utilized in the year 2020 regarding privacy. The primary norms that were predicted include:

  • No anonymous posts online, everything is tied to an identity
  • Opt-in security and privacy protection measures instead of opt-out
  • Expectation to share life online, possibly ostracized if not
  • Expected to make connections with others so as to remain socially relevant
  • Always on, some degree of constant functionality online

I cannot claim to know how many, if any, of these predictions will prove the test of time. One point was raised though relating to these predictions that makes me seriously doubt the benefit of eroding privacy. If privacy were essentially to be expunged, replaced with an always-on mentality, would people become masks or illusions of their true selves as a default protective mechanism to being constantly exposed? Fear of being ostracized for expressing true feelings, opinions and perspectives would result in people living within a shell of their true identities because of the ever-present knowledge that someone is watching.