Thoughts on Jonathan Zittrain’s “Generative Internet”

The Harvard Law Review just published Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Generative Internet,” 119 Harv. L. Rev. 1974 (2006). Given the standing of Zittrain (or, as everyone at the Berkman Center calls him, “JZ”) in the internet law community and the scope of his article, it immediately becomes a must-read.

There is much more to say about this piece than can fit into one blog post, but I will briefly summarize his two key points and then offer two responses of my own.

The article’s two core points:

1. The most important value of the internet is its “generativity.” The article defines this concept at some length, but it boils down more or less to a dynamic combination of utility, adaptability, ease of mastery, and accessibility. The fact that anyone can develop code to perform unanticipated functions and distribute it to the rest of the world with ease is the essence of generativity.

2. Regulators and consumers, responding to worms and similar security threats, are likely to insist on a more locked-down internet that will lose much of its generativity. Given the open texture of the internet, at some point there will be a disastrous worm or similar attack that causes serious damage. At different parts of the article JZ seems to express different levels of certainty about this prediction, but at several points he calls such a shift “inevitable.”

Obviously, these two points combine to yield a prescriptive conclusion. In order to avoid a coming lockdown that will cripple generativity, we should embrace smaller changes now that enhance security with less damage to generativity. Among the possible alternatives entertained briefly at the end of the article:

  • a “dual machine” solution where PC owners could switch between a “safe” mode and a highly generative mode, like SUV drivers shifting to all-wheel drive for off-roading;
  • easier authenticated identification of internet users;
  • various models of rating and labeling code as malware (not unlike Berkman’s Stop Badware project);
  • greater virus screening by ISPs and other instrumentalities in the middle of the network rather than at the ends.

Now, two responses from me.

1. Is generativity really the prime value? JZ is definitely asking the right question, building on Lawrence Lessig’s work: what is the fundamental underlying value to be protected in the design of the internet? He notes, I think rightly, that some common answers to this question, like “end-to-end architecture,” are still just particular design structures, and no more than proxies for the underlying value they are meant to advance. That is, end-to-end is a means not an end. (I might add that network neutrality is a similar proxy for underlying values.) But does JZ have the right answer as well as the right question? Perhaps, but I am not fully persuaded, and this article does not consider alternatives. Here’s one possible alternative: maybe the most important value of the internet is the widespread ability to engage in one-to-many communication. To complicate it further, maybe the prime value is the capacity to do so anonymously. It is easy to imagine design choices that would promote generativity at the expense of these communicative virtues, and vice versa.

2. Is the coming lockdown really, as the article says several times, “inevitable?” There is an inherent tension in JZ’s argument. The generativity thesis hinges on the notion that technology is very unpredictable. That is precisely why preserving generativity has value — it allows development to move off in unexpected directions. How, then, can we be so sure that the march to lockdown will progress as JZ anticipates? There are two empirical predictions here: that one or more extremely destructive worms will sweep through the internet, and that this will trigger a legal and market over-reaction. Maybe, maybe not. Slowly but surely, today’s generative internet is already developing the sorts of protection mechanisms that he advocates. These might reduce security risks to an acceptable level. And even if a disaster strikes nonetheless, the public response may be less extreme than JZ fears. I agree that we should take internet security more seriously — a pretty uncontroversial statement. To the extent that this article prescribes something more dramatic, rather than an incremental response (and it’s not clear in the end that it does), it may itself be an over-reaction.

Thanks to David Isenberg and Susie Lindsay for helping me think about these issues — probably the first of many such discussions about generativity.

8 Responses to “Thoughts on Jonathan Zittrain’s “Generative Internet””

  1. On (2), two things. First, I think one has to be fairly pessimistic about reaction to a digital Pearl Harbor or digital Black Plague. Our government likes to intervene heavy-handedly in technology, especially when security is concerned or business is threatened, and even if the government doesn’t, the pressure on Microsoft to do something would be incredible. To think we could get through such an event without extreme intervention seems incredibly optimistic.

    That said, and this is my second point, it isn’t clear to me that the solutions JZ points to (primarily compromising network neutrality to somehow improve security) would be particularly better for generativity than a Tivo-ized client, mainly because that initial compromise would put us on a very slippery slope. If you have only a weak moral/ethical basis to defend a non-discriminatory network, then on what basis do you defend a non-discriminatory client? (Or to put it another way: pragmatically, how is generativity a strong principle that gives us bright-ish policy lines? I can’t see it being very useful in practice.)

    On (1), I do agree that it is a weakness of the paper that it doesn’t strongly consider alternatives. However, communication mostly feels like a means, not an end, to me. If cheap/easy communication were a (the?) prime value, wouldn’t cheap/easy AT&T POTS have been just as good? The ‘net’s generativity meant that we could transform cheap/easy communication via modems into first email, then the web, then VOIP, now myspace, and who knows what next. Sure, all of these are ‘just’ communication, and likely communication in some way is always going to be the killer app of the internet, but the ‘net is new and different because of its ability to constantly generate new and better ways of communicating. That happens because of JZ’s prime value- generativity.

    (And writing that paragraph makes me realize again what a painfully awkward word generativity is. Oh well.)

  2. [...] [...]

  3. I like your point on (1). Some broad brushstrokes:

    “Is generativity really the prime value?”
    The question “Why” generativity sharpens the mind on the values issue not so much on the priority of values question but the “trade-off” between the process (*generativity*) and the alternative (let us call it the hybrid regulatory model, that embraces the four modalities). Here we come back to the old Hobbesian nightmare about governance…

    “Here’s one possible alternative: maybe the most important value of the internet is the widespread ability to engage in one-to-many communication. To complicate it further, maybe the prime value is the capacity to do so anonymously. It is easy to imagine design choices that would promote generativity at the expense of these communicative virtues, and vice versa.”
    True – I see where you are coming from. But if one asks hypothetically at the time of the creation of the Internet (sometime circa Al Gore’s famous pronouncement), what the Bill of Rights for the Internet should be – I find that I encounter not dissimilar problems set out in the Federalist Papers.

  4. [...] Definitely worth checking out.  I wrote a blog post about the Harvard article when it first appeared, and I think that pretty much sums up my own views.  I notice that the FAQ, when summarizing his key ideas about how to preserve generativity, leaves out greater authentication of users. That was one of the strategies touched on in the Harvard article that made me nervous.  Structural changes that make anonymity impossible threaten what I see as possibly an even greater virtue of the internet than its generativity: a widely available (though not universal) capacity to engage in efficient and effective one-to-many communication.  JZ, are you changing your mind on that one? [...]

  5. [...] The story (worth reading despite the serious objection I am about to discuss) reviews various economic and technological approaches for dealing with the problem, particularly captchas and various automated filtering approaches such as Akismet. Author Mann quotes observers like David Sifry of Technorati and WordPress (and Akismet) developer Matt Mullenweg, who (1) acknowledge that there will be a bit of a technological “arms race” against the sploggers but (2) consider that effort to be the price we pay for an open, distributed, interactive, user-centered network — for, in other words, a “generative internet” (an important concept from Jonathan Zittrain that I have discussed here, here, and here). [...]

  6. [...] Ethan Zuckerman has a fantastic post up about Google’s response to scams by hackers who hijack other peoples’ blogs and wikis: it lists the link with the warning message, “This site may harm your computer.” They do so based on analysis by the Berkman Center’s rapidly growing “Stop Badware” project, which analyzes malicious code on the web. This project is an attempt to use “code” instead of “law”, a la Larry Lessig, as a means of preventing a massive badware problem. No surprise that Berkmanite Jonathan Zittrain, who worries about just such a system meltdown and its pernicious ripple effects in law, business models, and individual behavior, is a founder of Stop Badware and a booster of similar code-based responses. (Zittrain’s important article about the internet’s “generativity” and therefore vulnerability is here; I posted a response here). [...]

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  8. [...] you think about info/law very much, none of this is quite new. And as I have said before about Zittrain’s work, I think he is too pessimistic about the certainty of lockdown (after [...]