The Generative Internet

Article Source: Harvard Law Review, Vol. 119, p. 1975, 2006
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This paper looks at how computer and Internet-related technologies foster innovation.


Policy Relevance:

Internet technologies are evolving in the direction of allowed too much centralized control. This threatens innovation. Security problems should be addressed at the individual level instead.


Key Takeaways:
  • The personal computer, the Internet, and the basic communications networks are general purpose technologies that allowed users a great deal of freedom and flexibility. These technologies fostered innovation because users could use and combine them in unexpected ways.

  • This open environment presents a fundamental problem—it is not secure. Viruses and enforcement problems proliferated.

  • The most recent successful technologies such as the iPhone, Tivo, give the producer of the technology much more control over what the end user does with it. “Tethered” software and devices help solve security problems, but threaten openness and creativity.

  • So long as such software and devices are run over a general purpose, open network and on open personal computers, the controls are fairly week. But a more controlled network and controlled computers would make the controls stronger.

  • Several strategies can avoid the technology enabling so much control that innovation is harmed.
    • Rules could keep the networks from controlling communications and traffic beyond a certain point, preserving “end-to-end” freedom and letting users do interesting things at the edges of the network.
    • More attention should be paid to the problem of Internet governance, currently partly managed by ICANN.
    • Consumers could be given better tools, like specially designed computers, to help them control security risks themselves.
    • Identification methods could be used to ensure that individuals, not ISPs, are accountable for security problems they cause.



Jonathan Zittrain

About Jonathan Zittrain

Jonathan Zittrain is the George Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Director of the Harvard Law School Library, and Faculty Director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.