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?

Before my whole life goes online, who’s calling the shots here??!?

28 09 2009

People are social creatures. Sure, there are varying degrees of truth to this but underlying our existence as life forms is our reliance on others for a wide variety of reasons. As babies we rely upon parents or caregivers to supply food, we interact with our peers as we mature, we turn to others for advice on a plethora of topics and most of us appreciate a good laugh or two among friends.

With that in mind, social networks are increasingly becoming hotbeds of activity as we move more of our daily lives online. We seek out answers to questions online; we socialize via Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging programs. Greater reliance upon online resources presents dependability issues. Will the tools we rely upon continually be there? Can we trust the tools we are using to help us or will they hurt us? Furthermore, who is control of these tools we use? A much more significant question is who is calling the shots throughout the Internet? Control is becoming one of those topics people approach with great care, skittishly poking and nervously prodding without an idea of what to expect. Internet control is the metaphorical gorilla in the room, a gargantuan one at that. More superficial examples of this struggle are exemplified today in countries such as China and North Korea where government factions hold reign over public Internet access. Is this a proper course of action? If you ask anyone who has experienced the freedom of open Internet access and the ability to speak their mind, the answer would most likely be a resounding no. Democracy extends its advantages to the online space as well in this regard. However, even democratic societies will have to tackle the issue of Internet control soon because the over exertion of control by single-minded individuals or groups could present tremendous problems by silencing perspectives that free populations appreciate. In turn, a worldwide domino effect can result as different sides vie for the ability to have the last word. That last word could be laying the potential groundwork for the Internet’s future.

Who is really in control?

Who is really in control?

To muddle the topic of Internet control even further, the concept of a lifelog is becoming gradually closer to reality. The term if in reference to a person essentially having every record of their existence placed online, accessible through the Internet. I like to think of this as an electronic Social Security card, passport and birth certificate combined into one while vulnerable to electronic eavesdropping. Call me pessimistic but I see tremendous problems with putting people’s lives online to such an extent that privacy becomes a foreign concept. Granted, I may be presenting my perspective on these topics through the view of someone living in the year 2009. Perhaps, over the next few years, people will realize and believe in a shift towards greater trust in the Internet to such a degree that becoming a “person” online is comforting. I can assure you of one thing though; I want to know who is in control of the Internet before I will be translating my real life into an all-encompassing electronic existence.