A Safe But Sterile Internet

In the web counterrevolution that Jonathan Zittrain foresees, users will lose the ability to control content, companies will gain the power to censor data, and security will trump innovation. It's a gloomy scenario that his new book, "The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It," says is already underway.

Zittrain, a professor at Oxford's Internet Institute, has long fought against attempts to control the Web and its Netizens. So it's no surprise that the book's biggest concern is the loss of the Web's free, communal ethos. Now, Zittrain says, the Net faces many threats to its openness: rising copyright infringement and identity theft encourage state interference, while viruses and spam are leading users to abandon flexible PCs for safe yet limited access through iPhones and BlackBerrys.

For anyone who's lost files to malware, a lockdown may not sound so bad. But as Zittrain points out, corporate devices and services allow makers to exert unprecedented control. They can be censored or wiped clean by remote updates and without user permission. Already, a pending patent-infringement lawsuit may allow TiVo to remotely destroy rival DVRs (leaving buyers high and dry), and customers of Skype's Chinese version can't text words like "Dalai Lama," as per Beijing's request.

Zittrain's worst-case scenarios may seem implausible—it's unlikely that Steve Jobs will erase iPhone memories any time soon. But as a legal scholar, Zittrain is right to be concerned with the implications of restricted Web freedom—and especially the power of states or companies to decide what speech can be accessed. Even now, routine filtering programs can mistakenly ban legit sites (a U.S. Embassy's page was once targeted as porn by the Feds' own filter because it had "ass" in its name). While Zittrain is not sure just how to solve the regulation tug-of-war, he believes that over time, the evils of too much freedom pale beside those of authoritarian control.