July 29, 2009
Harvard Law School Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95 discussed the social structures that keep the internet “safe from chaos” at this year’s TED Global Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design). The conference, which took place at Oxford, brought together intellectual leaders from around the world to discuss its theme, “The Substance of Things Not Seen.”
Zittrain said that social configurations keep key parts of the Internet online and functioning, with Internet architecture built to expect a surprising degree of kindness and trust. Drawing on examples, he warned that these social structures are extremely fragile.
In 2008, Pakistan Telecom accidentally caused YouTube to be unavailable in many places around the world after the Pakistani government asked Pakistan’s internet service providers to block the site because of a “blasphemous” video clip. “This one ISP in Pakistan decided to [institute] the block for its subscribers in a highly unusual way,” said Zittrain.
Fortunately, the problem became immediately known, and it was fixed within two hours not only thanks to YouTube’s monitoring, but because of cooperation within a largely unknown group called the North American Network Operators Group (NANOG). NANOG hosts discussions and distributes technical information among computer and network engineers.
“They came together to help find a problem and fix it,” Zittrain explained.
These social structures are found within some of the enterprises built on the Internet, such as Wikipedia. “It’s like dark matter in the universe. There’s a lot of it, you don’t see it, but it has a huge impact on the physics of the place,” Zittrain said.
Zittrain is a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at HLS and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Internet Society, “ISOC.” He is the author of “The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It,” and co-author of “Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering.”