Closing the Web: Why Fighting Spam Is Like the “War On Terror”

| 4/14/2008 9:38:59 AM

Locked InternetThe internet has a problem. In fact, it has many problems. Media reformers fear an encroaching corporate takeover, temperance advocates lament the abundance of pornography, and my computer has spyware. In the latest issue of the Boston Review, Jonathan Zittrain writes that spam, spyware, and other kinds of computer malware could get so bad that consumers will give up the “generative” qualities that made the internet great. Instead of adaptable and corruptible personal computers—able to generate new applications, both good and bad—Zittrain writes that the future of the internet could be more closed, less adaptable, and more like a kitchen appliance than a tool for creation.

Boston Review's March April issueAs evidence of this locked-down future, Zittrain, the author of the newly released book The Future of the Internet, cites a very cool but very inadaptable gadget: the iPhone. Users can’t download new applications to the iPhone without Apple’s approval. In fact, if people try to change the iPhone too much, Apple has threatened to turn their phones into $400 paperweights dubbed the “iBrick.” The wild popularity of the iPhone, according to Zittrain, proves that consumers want more locked-down products to avoid the scary world of spammers and bad code.

The problem with this argument is that it’s wrong. Zittrain uses hyperbole and bad psychology to exaggerate the threat posed by spam. In a response to Zittrain’s essay, also in the Boston Review, Richard Stallman cites the fact that 25 percent of iPhones have been altered and unlocked. That means at least one fourth of iPhone users have bought the product in spite of how locked down it is, not because of it.

Hidden inside Zittrain’s essay lies one idea that’s nothing short of dangerous: He suggests turning over greater control to AT&T, Verizon, and other telecommunications companies. He writes, “Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can also reasonably be asked or required to help” in the fight against spam. That would mean turning over more control to the telecom companies, and allowing them to discriminate between good users and bad users. If history is any guide, ISPs don’t always use their power and control for the good of the internet.

The Future of the InternetThe argument for turning over control to the ISPs sounds a lot like the Bush Administration’s argument for the “War on Terror”: There are bad people out to get you, so you should trust the people in charge. Zittrain uses the word “generative” like many use “freedom”: the freedom to create new programs and new code. The spammers want to take away your freedom, so let the ISPs protect you.

Zittrain even advocates a nightmare scenario for media reform advocates. He writes, “code might be divided into first- and second-class status, with second-class, unapproved software allowed to perform only certain minimal tasks on the machine.” This sounds suspiciously like the “tiered internet” many fear is the end of net neutrality.

Will Fertman
4/23/2008 1:05:28 PM

I'd just like to note that of the respondents who contributed to our forum on Internet security, Richard Stallman wasn't the only one skeptical about Prof. Zittrain's line of thinking. Susan Crawford of Yale Law noted that "In the eyes of many existing institutions, though, security isn’t really a problem—it’s an opportunity." i.e., a chance for service providers, law enforcement and hardware and software companies to gain greater control over the exchange of information. Bruce Owen finds Zittrain's proposals to be too vague to weigh cost against benefit, and questions his assumption that most net users find viruses and spam as oppressive and threatening as Zittrain asserts. Roger Grimes of Microsoft posits that the major security threats on the internet mostly involve social engineering, not malware, and doubts that the proposed fixes would be very effective in reducing the amount of bad behavior online. Hal Varain of Google also notes that many of Zittrain's proposals would be difficult to implement from a technical point of view. On the other hand, David Clark of MIT remains more supportive of Zittrain, seeing his proposals in the light of creating a more security-minded, socially cohesive community of users. We were very happy to get such a diverse array of major thinkers on this topic, and the diversity of their opinions underscores the technical and social challenges free speech (and free computation) face these days.

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