Rescuing the Internet for Digital Natives and the Rest of Us

In a wide-ranging interview, Palfrey and Zittrain survey the future of the Web

Photo of Jonathan Zittrain and John Palfrey
Kathleen Dooher

At a digital crossroad: Professors Jonathan Zittrain (left) and John Palfrey have written books about where the Internet might be headed.

Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95 is on the phone with his mother. “Are you online these days? Why not?” he asks, with genuine surprise. How can the parent of one of the world’s leading Internet experts live an unconnected life? His mom pleads her case: too many e-mails. Zittrain suggests ways she can reduce spam and other nuisances without giving up the many benefits of the Internet—the very topic, it turns out, that Zittrain and John Palfrey ’01, faculty co-directors of the HLS Berkman Center for Internet & Society, are discussing in Zittrain’s office.

If Zittrain’s mother, let alone corporations and governments, becomes too frustrated or threatened by problems on the Internet, the solutions may destroy the very qualities that make the Internet a revolutionary medium. As concerns mount about everything from spam to piracy, from privacy to child safety, the Web is at a critical juncture, they argue, its future uncertain and perhaps in serious jeopardy. The wrong choices—toward overregulation or “closed” technologies—will stifle freedom and innovation, alienate young people and drive some users to options that are actually less safe.

Both faculty members have recently published highly regarded books that urge thoughtful responses to the Internet’s challenges in ways that preserve the best aspects of the digital world. Zittrain’s work, “The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It” (Yale University Press), praises the “generativity” of the Internet and PCs—their ability to absorb new programs and technologies so the cyberworld is in a constant state of reinvention—but worries about the movement toward controlled technologies. Palfrey’s book, co-written with Urs Gasser LL.M. ’03, director of the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen, in Switzerland, is titled “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives” (Basic Books). It examines the digital divide between children who accept the Internet as basic to relationships, learning, work, and more, and their parents who don’t understand the cyberworld and often react in fear.

While Zittrain and Palfrey worry about losing what’s best about the Internet, both books ultimately are optimistic, presenting reasoned solutions and urging parents, lawmakers, technology companies and others to assume a role in preserving the medium. And, they note, the optimal solutions are likely to come from those who are allowed to continue to use the Internet with as little interference as possible: the digital natives. They expanded on their views in a recent Q&A with Elaine McArdle:

What are the problems that have brought the Internet to this critical juncture?

Photo of John Palfrey
Kathleen Dooher

Palfrey looks at the digital divide between children and their parents.

Palfrey: Some of the problems we see, at least from the perspective of parents and teachers, are that kids are bad, kids are endangered, and kids are dumber than they were before [the Internet]. In each of those cases, there’s some evidence that gives reason for that worry, but I think that fundamentally it’s overstated. In terms of kids being bad, people worry about aggressive behavior and bullying, that kids are meaner on the Net. I don’t think that’s a fundamental trait in kids—it’s how people have been using this set of technologies to mediate their relationships. And it’s something parenting and common sense can address. In terms of danger, parents are worried their kids will get abducted. That does sometimes happen. But it doesn’t happen any more frequently online, and it doesn’t happen more today than 10 years ago. Again, that’s something where common sense and a little help from technology can go a long way. Third, in terms of kids being dumber, that’s again just fundamentally untrue. I do think they’re learning in a really different way, and one of our biggest challenges as teachers is, how do we harness the most creative things that the most sophisticated kids are doing with this technology and how do we curb their worst excesses?

Zittrain: The problem I see is that the openness of the Internet and of PCs—the “generativity” of these platforms—is too easily subverted. There are twin worries: one, that the essentially anarchist, we-don’t-need-governance-we-can-build-this-barn-ourselves view of technology is starting to hit its limits. Worry two is that the most obvious reaction to that will be as bad as the problem or worse, that we’re going to flee from the suddenly dangerous rain forest into suburbia, and suburbia is a new range of closed or managed networks or closed or managed software. Apple’s iPhone is a great example. It’s open to software, but Steve Jobs gets to approve every single piece of software and can reject any prospectively or retroactively that appears on the iPhone. If this becomes the prevailing model, we’ll lose our shared technology platform where anything can happen from left field—where beneficial disruptions can arise and prove themselves before people have a chance to panic.

Palfrey: This is one of the connecting points of our books. One of the tenets of the Berkman Center, and a core tenet of “Born Digital,” is that kids can learn by doing something in ways that are transformative for them and for society. But if Jonathan’s story comes out the wrong way, all that goes out the window in terms of what young people can do.

Zittrain: It’s a great point of connection because some perceptions of kids today are that they’re slack-jawed, with iPods in their ears, indifferent to what’s going on. Others say no, they’re out there doing cool stuff, making viral videos, honing their Facebook pages and MySpace accounts, and the nerds among them might be writing code. The second group can’t thrive in a world where, at the level of code and content, the training wheels never come off, where there’s always a gatekeeping figure. It’s one of an interesting set of futures so different from each other, and we don’t know which one will come about: the one where the training wheels are bolted on for life, and large-scale coding and expression are left to professionals, or the one where they aren’t.

John, your book “Born Digital” is one of the first to say parents can’t just come to their kids and tell them, “I don’t understand this and so I’m going to make you turn off the computer.”

Palfrey: Nor should you say, “I don’t understand this world, so good luck!” They’re equally bad. The most interesting stories we heard in doing the research was about parents and teachers who truly let young people be their guides, for MySpace or Facebook or YouTube or something more dramatic like Second Life. It’s not like parents are going to spend a lot of time there, but they can see that common sense really helps, that as foreign as it seems before they get in there, there are some pretty obvious ways parents can help. But you have to take the first step of getting in there.

Both of you are concerned that the Internet will be hijacked through misguided regulation or closed environments. What are the worst things that could happen?

Zittrain: I have two worries. First, it’s hard to tell people what innovations they will miss out on in a suburbanized environment, not only because it’s hard to visualize innovations that haven’t happened—who would have thought Wikipedia was a good and plausible idea before it happened?—but also because at first many truly disruptive innovations seem stupid or illegal or dicey. It’s not clear to me that Tim Berners-Lee would have had success with the World Wide Web if he’d had to persuade someone at AOL Time Warner that it was good idea at [that] time when there were no Web pages. My second concern is what happens when you have intermediaries who can, thanks to ubiquitous networks, reprogram the way their customers’ devices work. We’re starting to see examples, such as car navigation systems that get reprogrammed to surreptitiously turn on the microphone so law enforcement can listen in on conversations. It’s weird to see us so casually, through home purchasing choices, building this infrastructure. And once it happens, I think it might be difficult to abandon it. Certainly once governments rely on it, they won’t want to see it go.

Palfrey: My concerns are very similar to Jonathan’s, in the sense that many of them are simply the things we can’t imagine today that young people would do or be able to do that just won’t happen if we restrict the environment more than is optimal. Lawmaking, like parenting, is about balance. We want to keep people from harm but don’t want to do so in a way that constrains behavior unnecessarily. Another way to think about it, is [the danger of introducing] more acute harm, in the context of safety. I chair an Internet Safety Technical Task Force, formed by 49 attorneys general and MySpace, in which tech companies are coming together to try to figure out how to use technology to keep kids safe online. What I’m most concerned about is a situation where no one is helping young people, or where [adults are] doing so much that they push [kids] out into less safe environments. New environments in computing are created once a month. Why do young people go to Facebook? They don’t want to be in the other public spaces we’ve created. What I’m worried about is if we say MySpace and Facebook are unsafe or otherwise constrain those environments so they’re unpalatable or boring, young people will go to other spaces that are less safe.

What kind of responses to your books are you getting? Are lawmakers interested?

Photo of Jonathan Zittrain.
Kathleen Dooher

Zittrain praises the “generativity” of the Internet but worries it is too easily subverted.

Zittrain: Neither of our books claims to have the whole picture, and we advance some nicely contestable propositions. For example, people love their iPhones. They don’t want to hear anything wrong about their iPhones, and I say that as a happy iPhone owner. Many people who might be thought of as fellow travelers on the wow-it’s-great-that-the-Internet-is-open side of things don’t think there’s any action that ought to be taken to preserve it through compromise. I don’t think that’s good because, while it may end up preserving the Internet for those obsessive and nerdy enough to fend for themselves, the rest of us will end up with the equivalent of cable TV. On the other side, there are a lot of people who say, “It’s about time the Internet or PCs became as or more capable of being regulated, tamed and predictable as every other information technology we’ve developed.”

Palfrey: “It’s grown-up, so act that way!”

Zittrain: Exactly. I want the youthful, informal aspects of our information technology, but I also realize it’s the 21st century. You can’t just have a framework designed for people who would rather build their own clock than buy one.

Who shares responsibility for keeping the best of the Internet while addressing these valid concerns?

Palfrey: In most cases, the young people themselves are in the best position to solve the problems. “Born Digital” talks about concentric circles, where you start with the young people, and as you go rings out, parents are next because they have the trust of, and access to, the young people, and teachers and mentors have important roles, then tech companies. I’d push social network sites like MySpace and Facebook into this category. They can do a lot. And we should consider the law. There are a few places where the law should be changed and could help. But that should be the last resort and not the first, and I say that very respectfully as a lawyer who believes deeply in the power of law to organize our society.

Why should law be the last resort in this environment?

Palfrey: At a time of extremely rapid change, adopting a new law is very hard to do in a way that will achieve your public policy objectives for very long, if at all. The U.S. Code is riddled with things like the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992, which was seeking to regulate a particular technology, digital audiotape, which never took hold. And there are much worse examples.Jonathan and I have written a book on Internet censorship, “Access Denied.” You can look across the world and see laws that were meant to address what may have been real problems but which have much greater ramifications than anyone who passed them could have imagined.

One of the issues John’s book raises is digital overload, including multitasking. Can students—including law students—absorb information when they’re doing two or five things at once? If not, how do you stop them?

Zittrain: The studies are pretty clear that multitasking doesn’t work. In my first-year torts class, I don’t allow laptops. On the other hand, I’ve been working on a number of other real-time digital tools for less stylized classes as well as workshops and conferences. For example, as a class or event is unfolding, students enter questions into a simple Web page and it automatically appears on screen, and if it gets enough positive response from the other students tracking the page, it’s introduced into the class itself—and students can answer each other’s questions on the fly, including those that don’t rise to the level of interrupting the class. That’s been a lot of fun, and helped make class sessions more productive, especially when there are varying levels of expertise or language barriers in the room. So let’s make [multitasking] topical and relevant, and we can make [classroom learning] better than without it. A law school is a fabulous place to think about this, since so much of the enterprise is to teach people in a participatory fashion—not, this is the law, here’s what you need to obey.

See also:
Preserving Free Speech on the Internet


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