Academic says gadgets threaten Internet's future

LONDON (Reuters) - The rise of gadgets like the iPhone, Blackberry and Xbox threatens to unravel the decades of innovation that helped to build the Internet, a leading academic has warned in a new book.

Steven Levy, a journalist from Newsweek magazine, holds the Apple iPhone outside the Apple store on New York's 5th Avenue June 29, 2007. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Professor Jonathan Zittrain says the latest must-have devices are sealed, “sterile” boxes that stifle creativity and turn consumers into passive users of technology.

Unlike home computers, new Internet-enabled gadgets don’t lend themselves to the sort of tinkering and collaboration that leads to technological advances, he says.

The mix of gadgets, over-regulation and Internet security fears could destroy the old system where mainstream technology could be “influenced, even revolutionized, out of left field”.

“I don’t want to see a two-tier world where only the experts can survive ... and the non-experts are stuck between something they don’t understand and something that limits them,” Zittrain told Reuters in an interview.

Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University, says the Internet’s simple, open architecture is key to its enormous success and also its flaws.

Amateur enthusiasts have come up with scores of new ideas by tinkering with the Internet on home computers. However, hackers have caused huge disruption by exploiting its loose structure.

Zittrain contrasts one of the first mass-produced home computers, the Apple II from the 1970s, with Apple’s latest gadget, the iPhone. He says the iPhone is typical of what he calls “tethered appliances”.

“They are appliances in that they are easy to use, while not easy to tinker with,” he writes. “They are tethered because it is easy to for their vendors to change them from afar, long after the devices have left warehouses and showrooms.”

They are a world away from the “generative Internet”, a term Zittrain uses to describe the open, creative, innovative approach that helped build the Internet.

The rise of viruses and fraud has also led to tighter controls on PCs, particularly those in schools, universities, offices and public places, Zittrain says.

People are often blocked from experimenting with shared computers and their input is severely limited.

There is still time to save the Internet, he believes, although the answer lies in social rather than technological changes.

Society should resist more regulation and place its trust in the Internet’s users. The success of Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia written and edited by its readers, shows how self-governance can work.

Internet users should see themselves as “netizens”, active participants in the online world rather than passive consumers.

“The community itself exercises a form of self-restraint and policing,” he said. “You see it in Britain when you try to jump a queue, you see it on Wikipedia when a page is vandalised.

“The challenge to the technologists is to build technologies to let people of good faith help without having to devote their lives to it.”

* The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It, , is published by Penguin.

Editing by Steve Addison