by CIO Staff

Zittrain’s Warning

Aug 24, 20053 mins
IT Strategy

Who else but Jonathan Zittrain could take the after lunch spot and engage the audience members for an hour, offering his take on the future of the Internet. In his presentation, titled “To Boldly Go: The Future of the Internet,” Zittrain, chair of Internet Governance and Regulation at the University of Oxford, started off rather pessimistically: “I have some worry that the future of the Internet–from the point of view of experience, boldness and innovation–is at risk.”

Zittrain detailed the history of the development of the Internet’s permissive architecture and standards, which, he argues, spurred a tremendous amount of innovation and market-changing companies, citing AOL’s Instant Messenger, Wikipedia, eBay and the SETI@HOME project.

But there are costs to all this progress, mainly the cost of control over the applications that traverse the Internet (especially those with worms and viruses). “Those are the applications that CIOs cannot control,” he pointed out.

One of his principal concerns centered on intellectual property, a subject which the lawyer is familiar with. He demonstrated how Napster and other copyright-infringing Internet-based applications and projects have altered the digital landscape – and exploited this permissiveness of the Web’s architecture. All of the discussion led to the security of the Internet, which should be of particular concern to CIOs – zombie PCs, digital Pearl Harbors in wait, virus-laden .exe files that could implode the Internet. The problem is that it’s not clear how to solve any of these problems, he stated. “We’ve been living off the [hackers and malicious code writers’] forbearance,” he said.

Of course, none of this was new to CIOs, but Zittrain was able to lead the discussion to the overarching theme: does the openness of the Internet need to change for the sake of its continued survial? He encouraged CIOs to think about the simple trade-off: security of their systems and networks, or the continued malleability of the Internet, which breeds application innovation but places more onus on consumers to defend their PCs. It will be a battle, he said.

Some solutions were offered from Zittrain and audience members: Having to license vendors who make the code, or were there digital rights management options, or should CIOs outsource all of this to third-party security vendors?

But, he questioned to the audience, would that make everything too predictable, thereby stifling the creative juices of the future IT generations? “It may eliminate the kind of innovation and chaos that drove the Internet and the PC,” he said. Which, unfortunately, is a very real possibility.

–Thomas Wailgum