Zittrain: Is Apple's iPhone Killing the Internet?

If you say that the iPhone is the greatest invention of your lifetime, few would bat an eye. If you stay up all night playing Halo 3 like some deranged supermarathoner bent on blasting strangers a continent away on your Xbox Live, few would question your sanity. But dare to claim that devices like the iPhone and the Xbox are killing the Internet as we know it, you'd be laughed out of town.

But this is the central argument of a new book, "The Future of the Internet--and How to Stop It." Jonathan Zittrain claims that the very thing that makes the Internet great--its "generative" or innovative nature--is being locked down in a new wave of closed devices like the iPhone, Xbox, TiVo and the OnStar system. Zittrain, cofounder of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, claims the Internet's ability to serve as an open platform for innovation is being undermined by these "tethered" toys that can't be easily modified by anyone except their vendors or selected partners.

"The Internet has been a collective hallucination," says Zittrain, who is also a professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University. Zittrain spoke recently with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about his qualms with Apple, Facebook applications, spam and government filtering. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: There seem to be a bunch of books coming out attempting to grapple with where the Internet is heading and what it's doing to us.
Jonathan Zittrain: I certainly think this is a particularly fertile time to be thinking about the future of the Internet. From my point of view, it's because we are racing to embrace a number of new technologies that could greatly change the way the system could be regulated.

You're talking about the threat to the generative quality of the Internet.
Correct. Through historical accident, we've ended up with a global network that pretty much allows anybody to communicate with anyone else at any time. Devices could be reprogrammed by them at any time, including code written by other people, so you don't have to be a nerd to get the benefits of reprogramming it. [But] this is an historical accident. Now, I see a movement away from that framework--even though it doesn't feel like a movement away. [For example,] an iPhone can only be changed by Steve Jobs or soon, with the software development kit, by programmers that he personally approves that go through his iPhone apps store. Or whimsical applications that run on the Facebook platform or the new Google apps. These are controllable by their vendors in ways that Bill Gates never dreamed of controlling Windows applications.

But Bill Gates has total control, doesn't he?
No he doesn't. That's the ironic thing. Bill Gates is Mr. Proprietary. But for my purposes, even under the standard Windows operating system from 1990, 1991, you write the code, you can hand it to somebody else and they can run it. Bill Gates has nothing to say about it. So it's funny to think that by moving in Steve Jobs's direction it actually ends up far more proprietary.

Jobs is notorious for creating a very closed ecosystem of products that include the iPod and iPhone.
Yeah, it's amazing to me how much the progress of Apple has tracked the trajectory that I'm concerned about. It was Steve Jobs who brought us the first PC in '77--totally reprogrammable, totally generative. It was Steve Jobs who then came out with the Mac that made it so much easier to use while retaining the generative quality and allowing everyone to write code for it. Now Steve Jobs is bringing us the iPhone, which in version one is completely locked down. And then in the most recent announcement Steve Jobs says, "OK, we're going to allow third-party apps, but you can't just hand an app to someone, you have to put it through the iPhone store, and we reserve the right to take a cut for every app. And if we don't like the app, we can kill it."

Apple isn't the only company you're critical of. You also take Facebook to task. What are they doing wrong?
Facebook is doing what comes naturally. I don't blame them at all. But in the big picture, they're developing a platform where--again, quite naturally--they're retaining the right just in case they need it to kill any app they don't like and to control the flow of data.

At some point does there have to be some authority that decides "this app is too offensive or ..."
For 30 years there has been no such authority for the PC. I think there's a reason why the PC is near the end of its life cycle, in part because there's now a business model for subverting the PC.

Which is?
The viruses and malware that sell zombie computers by the pound to the highest bidders. I'm interested in helping secure the PC--we need innovation here. It's not just hug your PC, hate the iPhone. In fact I don't even hate the iPhone; I think it's really cool. I just don't want it to be the center of the ecosystem along with the Web 2.0 apps. What I'm calling for is a more grass-roots dot-org effort to help secure generative systems so that when they then make a market decision, the PC has its best party dress on.

Meaning what? Free software? Open-source initiatives?
No. For example, I'm the cofounder of something called StopBadware.org, at the Berkman Center and at the Oxford Internet Institute, funded by Google, Sun, Lenovo, HP. We're trying to build a dot-org that helps to identify bad code out on the Net, using the cycles and bandwidth of participating Internet users. It's stuff you download to your machine that reports back its vital signs and running code to the rest of the herd. Then I can ask the herd, before I run new software, how many other people in the herd are running it. We'll be able to figure out several things, like how many self-described experts are running it versus clueless people, when the herd first encountered it, and is it brand new. That will help users decide if they even want to run the code.

And this is separate from your Access Denied initiative?
The open Net initiative tracks filtering around the world. We've been doing it in a pretty centralized way. We get money from foundations. We send people into various countries and have them ask for a bunch of Web sites, see where they can get, where they can't and have them leave before they get arrested.

What surprises have you found?
We found interesting choices about filtering health information, women's education and rights information in places like Saudi Arabia. I'm interested in harnessing the good will and distributed power of people, including novices. I'm designing a little Firefox plug-in so when you can't get to a Web site, you click on a button that says, "Why can't I get there from here?" The act of asking the question combined with everybody else tells you the answer. Because if everybody in China is asking why they can't get the BBC [site] and nobody else is [asking that], you can infer that maybe there's a problem in China with getting the BBC. That's a great example of a generative technology designed to solve a problem.

Are you reaching out to Internet service providers?
There are things they can do, but no, I'm not looking to farm this problem out. There's a couple things I say in the book about what Internet service providers can do about the virus problem, such as quarantine machines that have obviously gone sour on the networks. They're reluctant to do it because they'd rather just collect the monthly fee.