portability policies

A typically thoughtful and thought-provoking essay by Jonathan Zittrain, emphasizing the need for internet users — especially those reliant on the cloud for storage of their data — to think about portability as much as they think about privacy:

We enjoy access to massive archives of our digital trail in the form of emails, chats, comments, and other bits of personal ephemera, all stored conveniently out in the cloud, ready to be called up or shared in a moment, from wherever we happen to be, on whatever device we choose. The services stowing that data owe a commitment of privacy defined by a specific policy—one that we can review before we commit. Yet if any of the cloud services we use restrict our ability to extract our data, it can become stuck—and we can become locked into those services. The solution there is for such services to offer data portability policies to complement their privacy policies before we begin to patronize them, to help preserve our freedom to choose services over the long term. By dismissing the principle of net neutrality, however, we endanger that ability not just by one cloud service provider but across the board: ISPs can perform deep packet inspection to glean whatever they can about us as we correspond with different sites across the Internet, and our data can become stranded in places as the shifting sands of our ISPs’ access policies constrict access to places they disfavor. Just as international diplomacy depends on the principles of the inviolable embassy, la valise diplomatique, and mutual reciprocity to operate in the ultimate best interests of all involved, so does net neutrality depend on maintaining an online environment that preserves those aspects that made it such a valuable and central part of modern life in the first place.

The analogy to international diplomatic law is especially interesting. My view of cloud storage for my own data seems to change day by day. . . .

a case of increasing relevance

Jonathan Zittrain wrote these words in his book The Future of the Internet:

In the arc from the Apple II to the iPhone, we learn something important about where the Internet has been, and something more important about where it is going. The PC revolution was launched with PCs that invited innovation by others. So too with the Internet. Both were generative: they were designed to accept any contribution that followed a basic set of rules (either coded for a particular operating system, or respecting the protocols of the Internet). Both overwhelmed their respective proprietary, non-generative competitors, such as the makers of stand-alone word processors and proprietary online services like CompuServe and AOL. But the future unfolding right now is very different from this past. The future is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network. It is instead one of sterile appliances tethered to a network of control.These appliances take the innovations already created by Internet users and package them neatly and compellingly, which is good — but only if the Internet and PC can remain sufficiently central in the digital ecosystem to compete with locked-down appliances and facilitate the next round of innovations. The balance between the two spheres is precarious, and it is slipping toward the safer appliance.

Zittrain’s book was published in 2008, so these words may well have been written in 2007. They’re looking more and more prescient.


Jonathan Zittrain has a new book called The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It. Zittrain’s belief is that we are headed towards a security nightmare, that without major changes in the architecture of the internet a lot of people are going to lose a lot of money through compromises of their online identities. And if that happens, Zittrain believes, there will be a kind of retreat from personal computers to “information appliances,” more specialized machines that do some of the cool stuff we’ve become accustomed to enjoying but that are locked-down in ways that make us less economically and personally vulnerable. (Zittrain thinks that the iPhone, with its closed system and centrally controlled App Store, is the biggest step so far in this direction.) And Zittrain believes that if that happens, if we start to close doors that have been open since the internet got here, we’ll lose a lot of creativity of dialogue and invention — we’ll lose what Zittrain calls “generativity.” There’s a terrific review by Tim Wu of Zittrain’s book in the new New Republic. TNR tends to put some content online temporarily and then later remove it (except for subscribers), so I don’t know how long a link will work, but for now here it is. Wu believes that the development of the internet has a strong parallel nearly a century ago in the development of radio, and the story he tells is fascinating. I’ll leave you with a taste of it:

While it sounds surprising, there were probably more broadcast radio stations in the 1920s than there are now (excluding satellite). A guide to the nation’s stations in 1922 declined to provide listings for New York City, because “a list of all that can be heard with a radio receiver anywhere within three hundred miles of Greater New York would fill a book. At any hour of the day or night, with any type of apparatus, adjusted to receive waves of any length, the listener will hear something of interest.” And early radio, like the early Internet, was aggressively non-commercial. At a radio conference held by the Commerce Department in 1922, all agreed that “direct advertising in radio broadcasting service be absolutely prohibited.” Herbert Hoover, speaking at that conference, declared that “It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes to be drowned in advertising chatter.” The point is that both radio and film were, in their early days, much like the Internet is today: new, unreliable, and full of content that was not ready for prime time. These were easy industries to get into, like dot-coms in the 1990s or Web 2.0 in the 2000s. To get into film in the 1910s required little more than converting a store into a movie theater, which is how William Fox (20th Century Fox), Adolph Zukor (Paramount), and Carl Laemmle (Universal) got their start. They were low-budget entrepreneurs, the Larry Page (Google) and Pierre Omidyar (eBay) of their day. I do not mean to glorify the age of silent film or local radio. I have watched plenty of silent films, and there is much to be said for sound. I want only to insist that where the Internet is now, we have been before. What Zittrain calls a “generative” media was not invented by the Internet’s founders. And that is why understanding what happened next may be our best guide to the Internet’s future.