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?

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