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Do We Need Two Internets?

Bill Thompson

Jonathan Zittrain's recent book, The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It, has spurred a lot of discussion both online and offline, with blog posts lauding his insights or criticising his over-apocalyptic imagination.

The book itself makes fascinating reading for those who have watched the network grow from its roots in the research community into today's global channel for communications, commerce and cultural expression.

And the distinction that Zittrain makes between computers and devices that are open for hacking, exploration and creative use and those which are locked down and limited is one that we can clearly see.

An iPhone and an Asus Eee PC are very different objects, and I can't imagine anyone scrawling 'this machine kills fascists' on their iPhone in homage to Woody Guthrie, while my son has just done this to his Asus.

One of the reasons that Zittrain puts forward for the growing popularity of closed or, as he prefers 'tethered', devices, is that they are less vulnerable to hacking, security flaws, malware and all the other perils that face any internet-enabled system.

But he sees great dangers in allowing the creative potential of our computers to be limited by the need to register programs with companies like Apple, or have Microsoft's approval before your software will run on Windows.

And because he's from the United States, he doesn't believe that the government or a regulatory framework can solve the problem.

Instead he calls on the internet-using community to come together to solve the serious problems that face us, and offers his own suggestions as to where some of that effort might go.

One of his more interesting suggestions is that our PCs and laptops should have two operating modes: red and green. In the green zone the system is locked down, only approved programs can run, only demonstrably safe traffic is sent and received, and safety is as assured as it can be.

The red zone is more like today's network, where you can download and run pretty much any software you like, but you run the risk that the movie file you found on BitTorrent is actually carrying a nasty little virus.

Users could then decide whether they want to work in the safe zone or go out onto the wider network. And, crucially, the red zone would have a 'restore' button that would wipe anything bad and return you to its initial state so you could recover from any infection.

It's a nice idea, and I think a lot of home users would choose a safer, if more limited, online experience.

But unlike Zittrain I think that regulation can help, and that putting control in the hands of democratically elected governments is far better than putting it in the hands of corporations.

He wants the network's users to solve the problems, but a community on its own is far less effective than one backed by the rule of law, as eBay clearly demonstrates. It can only operate as it does because contract law and financial regulation provide a way for the community to enforce its decisions against members, and this is true for other online services.

However not all governments are good; not all governments are wise and sensible; and not all governments listen to reason.

It is therefore necessary to ensure that, whatever the architectures of control on tomorrow's network, there is space for subversion, for activism, for stuff that is not approved, not countenanced by the state, not strictly legal.

And even if we accept that trusted systems will define the online experience for most people, most of the time — and that they will accept and even benefit from that — there needs to be more.

Perhaps we should extend Zittrain's idea beyond the computer and onto the network itself, and offer two separate logical networks, operating over the same physical connections. One would be the safe world of electronic toll roads, the other a collection of dark and dangerous back alleys.

It would not be hard to build such a system. Many of us already use what is called 'virtualisation' technology to run different operating systems at the same time, like the Mac users who also have Windows on their computer.

We could have a special virtual operating system for the uncontrolled internet, and anyone who wanted to use it would simply have to run it.

Of course things are not yet as bad as Zittrain seems to claim, and though I don't often agree with noted free market advocate and libertarian Adam Thierer, his critical review on the Progress and Freedom Foundation blog is well-argued and often insightful.

As he notes, he can 'see no reason why we can't have the best of both worlds-a world full of plenty of tethered appliances, but also plenty of generativity and openness.'

But the desire to have a safe space online is growing stronger, and the pressure to lock down large swathes of the online world in order to make the network safe for the vulnerable will not go away.

We've seen it just this week with Facebook announcing that it will attempt to block access to its service to people convicted of 'sex offences' in the US, even though many of them will be guilty of nothing more than consensual sexual activity with other adults in public places.

But because the effort of checking whether someone was convicted — and not merely cautioned — for an offence which involved children is too great tens of thousands of people will be blocked from accessing the service.

Perhaps having a place where no such unreasonable and arbitrary distinctions exist is a good reason to start working on an alternative network.

By Bill Thompson, Journalist, Commentator and Technology Critic
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Re: Do We Need Two Internets? Paul Tattersfield  –  May 16, 2008 1:20 PM PDT

“But unlike Zittrain I think that regulation can help, and that putting control in the hands of democratically elected governments is far better than putting it in the hands of corporations.”

I think ICANN is shortly going to be at a similar major crossroads in its approach to new gTLDs. If they are successful then there is going to be an inevitable power shift away from National Governments and their ccTLD registries (like Nominet for the .co.uk namespace).

Is this something you see as a bad thing?

Would users be better served with local registration rules and local laws? Or do you think their interests would be better served by allowing additional competition within an international marketplace albeit a marketplace possibly heavily dominated by a handful of (perhaps predominantly US) corporations?

Re: Do We Need Two Internets? go2ao  –  May 21, 2008 2:27 PM PDT

It's entirely possible to build the equivalent of a "red" zone and a "green" zone right now, notwithstanding the DNS. The "tethering" problem referred to by Jon Zittrain is both structural by design and required by competitive pressures occasioned by so-called "walled gardens", primarily in the U.S.

The structural impediment is the DNS itself which maintains and reinforces ICANN's monopolization of the global Internet on the CORRECT premise that technical oversight of the DNS ensures reliable TECHNICAL management of the root. Arguably in-country authorities could manage that themselves, which they happily did before ICANN existed (c 1998-99). However, the DNS by design nonetheless requires as a technical minimum than anything that ultimately resolves at level one must conform with the DNS protocol (Mockapetris et al).

Which brings me to Bill Thompson's reference (after Zittrain) to what amounts to "tethered" and "untethered" Internets: ie., two Internets, one open and unsecured, and one closed and (therefore) secure. The argument for technical management and supervision of the DNS root zone will, perhaps but not necessarily, trump the idea that two separate Internets (tethered and untethered - public and private) are nonetheless a good thing. Moreover, there's no logical or even technical reason that precludes this. It's an artifact of the way that Postel and others originally viewed the model. Moreover, ICANN in its own interest will always argue that two Internets are both administratively and technically incompatible. Both arguments are false. Here's why that is the case.

It's called "Interchangeable Master Channels (IMCs). IMCs are level three networks that consist of uniform and coherent aggregations of level two master channels to which level three sub-channels are attached. Simple as that. Level two is NOT tethered while level three IS tethered and, thus, the security ramifications that stem from what amounts to a private Internet inside of the public Internet where all level two master channels perfectly resolve.

An example of how IMCs do what they do can can found today, layered across the public Internet in the dot-com name space where the network has been located since before ICANN (c 1997-98). The EXISTING Network does have some limitations: ie., the number of master GENERIC channels (750) that were previously procurred. Be that as it may, the design of the world's only existing network of IMCs is quite interesting.

Namely, ALL level two master channels (IMCs) perfectly resolve in the dot-com name space and therefore the dot-com DNS root. All level three "brand channels" (which are interchangeable in real time) are managed. Accordingly, innumerable brand channels (http://brandchannel.masterchannel.com) can simultaneously occupy the level two master channels. The number of existing master generic channels was originally set up so as to accommodate almost every conceivable brand name product or service anywhere in the world and, thus, brand name entities around the world which are the "default" owners of their own brand name channels can support the master public channels to which they are attached.

The result of this particular model is a contemporary and doable method for creating tethered and untethered (dual) Internets: one public, one private, and impervious to ICANN. Call them "red" zones or "green" zones, or whatever. IMCs exist and can be used.

The real problem that confronts the model is ICANN itself which will always resist the IMCs innovation because IMCs by design bring no revenue whatsoever to ICANN beyond the level two registration tariff(s). If ICANN would open itself to the fact that numerous IMC networks are doable (and, thus dual Internets; one public and one private, much like TV and radio broadcasting in the U.K. and in Canada), then the issue of tethered or untethered Internets would evaporate. At any rate it's doable now. Anyone can obtain information about IMCs by simply sending an email with IMCs in the subject line to go2ao@aol.com

Re: Do We Need Two Internets? Alex Tajirian  –  May 28, 2008 10:33 AM PDT

Thanks for the post!

[Zittrain] wants the network’s users to solve the problems, but a community on its own is far less effective than one backed by the rule of law, as eBay clearly demonstrates. It can only operate as it does because contract law and financial regulation provide a way for the community to enforce its decisions against members, and this is true for other online services.

I agree that markets might fail to solve the problem. However, in the presence of network externalities, government intervention might not be desirable either.

Maybe you or someone wants to jump in to shed some light on the necessary legal laws besides contract and financial regulation. With red and green communities, wouldn’t trademark law be relevant, as software is protected under such a law? Or does it fall under property law, as someone with malicious software may be destroying your intangible assets? However, the typical trademark law violation occurs with a “pull,” ie, when someone illegally uses someone else’s mark. When receiving malicious software, it is a “push” trademark violation, in that the trademark owner is “forcing” the use of the trademark without the consent of the receiver. Thanks!

Re: Do We Need Two Internets? Alex Tajirian  –  May 28, 2008 10:35 AM PDT

gpmgroup.com said:

Would users be better served with local registration rules and local laws? Or do you think their interests would be better served by allowing additional competition within an international marketplace albeit a marketplace possibly heavily dominated by a handful of (perhaps predominantly US) corporations?

Very interesting governance issue.

Re: Do We Need Two Internets? Alex Tajirian  –  May 31, 2008 8:49 AM PDT

It does not seem that Professor Zittrain has heard of domain name parking. Otherwise, he would have used it as an example of a tethered Internet application that is more sterile than his iPhone and TiVo examples. Nevertheless, the book may be a wakeup call to our industry.

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