Does the Internet need to be saved?

Does the Internet need to be saved?

Today, Internet users in Turkey number more than 16 million, representing some 21 percent of the country's population.

February 12, 2008, Tuesday/ 19:23:00/ ANNE ANDLAUER
Today, Internet users in Turkey number more than 16 million, representing some 21 percent of the country's population and a growth of 700 percent since 2000 (Internet World Stats, June 2007).Turkish Internet users are joining more than a billion online around the globe -- 19 percent of the world's population.

Yet despite such extraordinary numbers and rapid growth, some today think the Internet is under threat and that it even needs to be saved. Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor and the co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, is a prominent voice on the challenges facing cyberspace. What is at risk, Zittrain and others argue, is the Internet's creative and participatory power.

Perhaps if we were to look back at the first Web pages, created some 15 years ago, we would laugh at their rough, simple designs. Our world is now one where digital video and editing programs are widely available and where fast connections make it simpler for anyone to generate content on the web.

"As late as 1995, it was thought that the global network would be some combination of the private services of those days, such as CompuServe and AOL," Zittrain recalls in an article titled "Saving the Internet" published in the Harvard Business Review. In fact, not only was there no original plan for content on the Internet, but there was even hostility toward many kinds of content. "The foundation of the Internet, operated by the US National Science Foundation, had a policy prohibiting commercial activities. For years, the Internet was basic (wild, crude), a series of connections among universities and research laboratories who wanted to experiment with networking."

But those were different times. The blessing and, today some would say the curse, of the Internet lies in its unprecedented generativity: the Web's accessibility to people worldwide -- whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated, powerful or not; regardless of race, nationality, religion, political beliefs -- who can use the Internet to share information, viewpoints, likes and dislikes, photos, videos or anything they can produce in a digital form.

Let us pause for a minute and search a topic like "kebap" on Google. It would be easy to forget that what now appears on the computer screen -- some 1,2 million results generated in less than a second -- was in many cases created not by large corporations or government institutions, but by individuals. Individuals expressing themselves, sharing recipes for their favorite kebaps, or writing about their favorite kebap restaurant in Bursa, New York or Tokyo.

The same is true for more weighty topics like political views, especially in opposition to ruling regimes that might exert influence -- directly or indirectly -- on mainstream media outlets like TV and radio. When the Internet came onto the scene, power was, in effect, transferred to the citizenry, the people. Never in the history of humankind has a single individual had the power and ability to potentially reach people in every corner of the planet, and in an instant at that.

The fact is that the Internet was the first real media platform to have been, at least initially, fashioned by, for and about individuals. Its first pages were not developed by business executives based on marketing studies to increase sales, or by government institutions who decided for users what was appropriate for them to see. The first pages emanated from individuals who created and shared all sorts of content (from worldviews to software programs), which in turn generated more content and attracted many more users.

The benefits of generativity

From all this individuality, Zittrain notes, sprung creativity and innovation. Some of the great Internet success stories started out as personal passions and endeavors, not from large companies. Ebay, which now owns a stake in, was started not by a world famous auction site but by an individual on a shoestring budget. The same goes with Amazon, the online bookseller, which now sells practically every product imaginable.

Many ideas, from free web-based mail (Hotmail and others) to instant messenger applications and social networking sites like Facebook, were started by individuals or small groups of people looking to solve a problem or simply do something innovative. Zittrain notes that large multinational corporations buy innovative enterprises at a great premium price because they are by their nature "slow to develop innovative ideas" themselves.

But while creativity and innovation both tend to come from individuals, Zittrain also notes that generativity is not necessarily benign. "The main problem and potential of the combined Internet and PC is its generativity: being accessible to people all over the world -- people without particular credentials or wealth or connections -- people who can use and share the technologies' power for various purposes," Zittrain writes.

With this explosion of content and innovation on the Web came increased vulnerability and added scrutiny and controls. Some chose to use the Web for less-than-savory means, as a platform to launch viruses that would affect computers around the globe or as a place to scam unsuspecting users. In short, the current computing and networking environment has become more and more vulnerable and this vulnerability stems from generativity itself.

Generativity under threat: The example of YouTube

As a previously unregulated and widely dispersed medium, the Internet is starting to be obstructed by governments who regulate content and companies that have financial interests in funneling users to their sites. Control and regulation have become pervasive -- sometimes quite obviously and other times almost invisibly -- with the end result that the one relatively free and democratic medium is looking less egalitarian by the day. Some would say it needs to be saved.

A recent example of this came when a Turkish court ordered access cut to popular video-sharing Web site YouTube because of clips deemed insulting to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The ban, which lasted for six days and was the second such incident in Turkey, not only raised concerns about the country's shortcomings in the arena of freedom of expression, but also emphasized what Zittrain regards as the main challenge facing the Internet today, namely the ability to "maintain a generative openness to experiments that can be accepted by the public with as few barriers as possible."

Some people have long called for the establishment of such barriers as the only way to "save the Internet from itself." Others see the Internet as the only truly free platform out there and claim the right to do whatever they want in an uninhibited manner. Others view generativity as a gamble, because one of the consequences of letting anybody do anything is that it creates the largest number of ideas and that, consequently, lot of them are going to be disturbing or utterly false. Most proponents of the latter view yearn for a day when all users of the Internet will respect a sort of "netiquette" or adhere to self-policing methods.

"One solution to the generative problem organizes tools for people to use, usually in small groups, to prevent what they see as abuse," Zittrain writes, referring to the relatively new notion of "netizenship." Zittrain cites Wikipedia as an example of that. "[Wikipedia] offers easy-to-master tools that make it possible for all kinds of editors to combat vandalism that comes from letting anyone to edit entries. It is a system at once naïve and powerful compared with the more traditional kinds of regulation and control designed to stop outsiders from doing bad things."

Zittrain compares netizenship to a volunteer fire department or a neighborhood watch. "Not everyone will be able to fight fires or watch the neighborhood -- to be sure, some will be setting the fires! -- but even a small subset can become a critical mass. The propagation of bad content is a social problem as well as a technical one. And people can come together in a social way to attack it."

Zittrain and others are currently suggesting other solutions that would help preserve the generative nature of the Internet while tackling the breaches in generativity that make the Internet and computers more and more vulnerable. What all these solutions have in common is that they rely on the idea that for the generative Internet to save itself, it must generate its own solutions. "The more we can maintain the Internet as a work in progress, the more progress we can make," is Zittrain's conclusion.