How Do We Fight Corporate Control of the Internet?

Last week I wrote about the premise of Oxford professor Jonathan Zittrain's new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (Yale University Press). He warns about a future of "tethered" technologies like the digital video recorder and smartphones that often are programmed remotely by the companies that make them rather than being programmed by users, as PCs are. As a partial solution, Zittrain offers up the idea of Wikipedia-style communities, where users create their own services without being "tethered" to a company that can change the rules any time.

Unfortunately, crowds of people running Web services or technologies online cannot save us from the problem of tethered technology. Indeed, Zittrain's crowds might even unwittingly be tightening the stranglehold of tethering by lulling us into a false sense of freedom.

It's actually in the best interest of companies like Apple, Comcast, or News Corp to encourage democratic, freewheeling enclaves like Wikipedia or MySpace to convince people that their whole lives aren't defined by tethering. When you get sick of corporate-mandated content and software, you can visit Wikipedia or MySpace. If you want a DVR that can't be reprogrammed by Comcast at any time, you can look up how to build your own software TV tuner on Wikipedia. See? You have freedom!

Unfortunately, your homemade DVR software doesn't have the kind of easy-to-use features that make it viable for most consumers. At the same time, it does prove that tethered technologies aren't your only option. Because there's this little puddle of freedom in the desert of technology tethering, crowd-loving liberals are placated while the majority of consumers are tied down by corporate-controlled gadgets.

In this way, a democratic project like Wikipedia becomes a kind of theoretical freedom -- similar to the way in which the U.S. constitutional right to freedom of speech is theoretical for most people. Sure, you can write almost anything you want. But will you be able to publish it? Will you be able to get a high enough ranking on Google to be findable when people search your topic? Probably not. So your speech is free, but nobody can hear it. Yes, it is a real freedom. Yes, real people participate in it and provide a model to others. And sometimes it can make a huge difference. But most of the time, people whose free speech flies in the face of conventional wisdom or corporate plans don't have much of an effect on mainstream society.

What I'm trying to say is that Wikipedia and "good crowds" can't fight the forces of corporate tethering -- just as one person's self-published, free-speechy essay online can't fix giant, complicated social problems. At best, such efforts can create lively subcultures where a few lucky or smart people will find that they have total control over their gadgets and can do really neat things with them. But if the denizens of that subculture want millions of people to do neat things too, they have to deal with Comcast. And Comcast will probably say, "Hell no, but we're not taking away your freedom entirely because look, we have this special area for you and 20 other people to do complicated things with your DVRs." If you're lucky, Comcast will rip off the subculture's idea and turn it into a tethered application.

So what is the solution, if it isn't nice crowds of people creating their own content and building their own tether-free DVRs? My honest answer is that we need organized crowds of people systematically and concertedly breaking the tethers on consumer technology. Yes, we need safe spaces like Wikipedia, but we also need to be affirmatively making things uncomfortable for the companies that keep us tethered. We need to build technologies that set Comcast DVRs free, that let people run any applications they want on iPhones, that fool ISPs into running peer-to-peer traffic. We need to hand out easy-to-use tools to everyone so crowds of consumers can control what happens to their technologies. In short, we need to disobey.

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