“Death of the Open Web”?
Those words have an ominous ring for those of us who have a deep appreciation of the Internet as well as high hopes for its future. The phrase comes from the title of a recent New York Times article that struck a nerve with some readers. The article paints a disquieting picture of the web as a “haphazardly planned” digital city where “malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters unsafe and unsanitary.”
There is a growing sentiment that the open web is a fundamentally dangerous place. Recent waves of hacked WordPress sites revealed exploited PHP vulnerabilities and affected dozens of well-known designers and bloggers like Chris Pearson. The tools used by those with malicious intent evolve just as quickly as the rest of the web. It’s deeply saddening to hear that, according to Jonathan Zittrain, some web users have stooped so low as to set up ‘Captcha sweatshops’ where (very) low-paid people are employed to solve Captcha security technology for malicious purposes all day. This is the part where I weep for the inherent sadness of mankind.
“If we don’t do something about this,” says Jonathan Zittrain of the insecure web, “I see the end of much of the generative aspect of the technologies that we now take for granted.” Zittrain is a professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University and the author of The Future of the Internet: and How to Stop It; watch his riveting Google Talk on these subjects.
The Wild West: mainstream media’s favorite metaphor for today’s Internet
The result of the Internet’s vulnerability is a generation of Internet-centric products — like the iPad, the Tivo and the XBOX — that are not easily modified by anyone except their vendors and their approved partners. These products do not allow unapproved third-party code (such as the kind that could be used to install a virus) to run on them, and are therefore more reliable than some areas of the web. Increased security often means restricted or censored content — and even worse — limited freedoms that could impede the style of innovation that propels the evolution of the Internet, and therefore, our digital future.
The web of 2010 is a place where a 17 year-old high school student can have an idea for a website, program it in three days, and quickly turn it into a social networking craze used by millions (that student’s name is Andrey Ternovskiy and he invented Chatroulette). That’s innovation in a nutshell. It’s a charming story and a compelling use of the web’s creative freedoms. If the security risks of the Internet kill the ‘open web’ and turn your average web experience into one that is governed by Apple or another proprietary company, the Andrey Ternovskiys of the world may never get their chance to innovate.
We champion innovation on the Internet and it’s going to require innovation to steer it in the right direction. Jonathan Zittrain says that he hopes we can come together on agreements for regulating the open web so that we don’t “feel that we have to lock down our technologies in order to save our future.”
According to Vint Cerf, vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, “I think we’re going to end up looking for international agreements – maybe even treaties of some kind – in which certain classes of behavior are uniformly considered inappropriate.”
Perhaps the future of the Internet involves social structures of web users who collaborate on solutions to online security issues. Perhaps companies like Google and Apple will team up with international governmental bodies to form an international online security council. Or maybe the innovative spirit of the web could mean that an independent, democratic group of digital security experts, designers, and programmers will form a grassroots-level organization that rises to prominence while fighting hackers, innovating on security technology, writing manifestos for online behavior, and setting an example through positive and supportive life online.
Many people are fighting to ensure your ability to have your voice heard online — so use that voice to participate in the debate, stay informed, and demand a positive future. Concerned netizens and Smashing readers: unite!
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