Oct 17

Jimmy Guterman

Jimmy Guterman

Web2Summit: Jonathan Zittrain, Contrarian ... and Worried

We're big fans of Jonathan Zittrain here at Radar. Back in the June "Code Is Law" issue of Release 2.0, we wrote: "If you read anything else this month, make it Jonathan Zittrain's How To Save The Internet in this month's Harvard Business Review. (Disclosure: I do some work for HBR's parent company.) So lively you might be surprised it was written by a law professor, the article is wildly ambitious, ranging from Wile E. Coyote metaphors to a meditation on the nature of Netizenship. Zittrain's main argument is that "generativity," our ability to create via the Net, is the most exciting -- and worrisome -- aspect of the Net. Indeed, what makes the Net so great is precisely what makes it so dangerous."

At the Web 2.0 Summit this morning, Zittrain delivered an energetic, wide-ranging, darkly funny talk called "Web 2.NO: What's over the Web's edge?" and started by promising "If you're contrarian, you're in the right place." Roughly half the people in the half-filled room behaved contrarian to the speaker by pecking on laptops, tablets, or handheld devices. He illuminated his generativity argument, celebrating the move from sterile (can't change it) to generative (can do whatever you want), while using examples like CAPTCHA sweat shops to show how the bad guys can ruin the pleasure of the generative for the rest of us. (We'll see how this plays out in a new arena, as Apple has announced today that it will sort-of open up the iPhone. Zittrain didn't note this in his presentation. Indeed, he argued against licensing coders, which is exactly what Apple announced this morning.)

Zittrain concluded his talk with an idea very much in the air nowadays, as Facebook's valuation inches past the GNP of some small countries, that Facebook is a closed system a la Compuserve, and he walked through some of the more onerous aspects of Facebook's terms of service. Using his examples, Microsoft's approach to its developers seems, in comparison, remarkably open. He also called on a variety of examples, the most frightening ones involving the FBI, that make one even more fearful than usual for the future of civil liberties.

What to do about this? Zittrain had four ideas:

* Move from thinking about privacy policies to thinking about portability policies. Make it easy to move data from one place to another -- and to delete it at its source.

* Cut the tether. Don't let companies control devices after they leave the factory.

* Use non- or less-contingent APIs. If we want Net neutrality, why not API neutrality?

* Get to a more "pure" Web 2.0 and Semantic Web.

Zittrain made it clear that the closed policies of Facebook and its ilk are exactly what a lawyer advising the company would recommend. The trick, I suppose, is for the industry to create an environment in which that advise is unacceptable.

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