The Open Internet

From SI410
Jump to: navigation, search

The Open Internet is a phrase that describes the generative, open-source nature of the modern internet. This model allows anyone to build on the net using innovation and code. Such projects have resulted in the Linux family of operating systems, open collaborative projects such as Wikipedia, and even the ability to add content to the internet. Its essence is massive crowdsourcing, which allows the wisdom of the crowds to create a generative global network. Contrasting this model is the closed-source model, which is used most notably in Digital Rights Management (DRM). The open internet is effectively a public place, albeit digital, where the public can interact without pressure from the control and scrutiny of corporate and government entities.

The Internet. Thinking of the internet as a massive interconnected web of endpoints (computers, servers, etworks, etc), this is approximately what it would look like if one could see all of the infinite connections. Note how there is no central node; no central control mechanism, unlike earlier proprietary networks.

A Brief History of Public and Proprietary Spaces

The notion of public property goes back far; in the United States, modern copyright law and intellectual property (IP) laws have their beginning in the U.S. constitution. Article 1, Section 8, clause 8 reads:

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."


In its current form, the U.S. copyright law protects creative works for the duration of the author's (or authors') life plus 70 years[2]. This copyright law forms the basis for the Open Source vs Closed Source debate, as developers can license their software , specifically for community (as opposed to proprietary) involvement, using Creative Commons. Using the collective, community knowledge, as opposed to highly-controlled, secretive proprietary knowledge is one of the main pillars of Creative Commons, which seeks to provide a public online sphere for all to enjoy, and not one that is controlled by a private entity.

The Beginnings of the Internet

The Proprietary Model: Closed Source

Before the internet--as a mass, global network--existed, there were many networks operated centrally by corporations; users couldn't add to the network, contrary to the modern internet, and users could only access and view content and services directly offered by the corporation that owned the network. However, these networks still relied on the telephone network of AT&T. Such proprietary networks included Compuserve, America Online, Prodigy, GEnie. These networks, unlike the larger internet, could not interact with each other.[3] To access content (again, which was wholly controlled by the owning company), users had to sign in to the company's servers; instead of these proprietary networks being generative[3], users could only access content that the company explicitly approved. Often, programmers were contracted out to create content for the servers, but, especially in the case of Compuserve, available content was left largely unchanged[3].

The Generative Model: The Open Internet

Unlike proprietary networks, where users could not interact with the network in anyway they could imagine, the open internet rose not to offer a specific service, but to simply be a way to connect anyone to anyone; there was no intended purpose for the internet other than to connect individuals simply for the sake of connecting. Initially, the only computers capable of connecting to the internet were those in university computer and research labs, connecting not by a modem but by a direct connection, which was unavailable to the early PCs[3]. The software that allowed PCs to connect to a phone line, Windows Sockets API, wasn't available; Peter Tattam wrote a form of the Windows Sockets API(Winsock) called Trumpet Winsock that allowed individual PCs to connect. In addition, he distributed it as shareware, offering it for free and only asking for a donation if people used it beyond a certain test period.[3]

Open Source vs. Closed Source

Matt Asay, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Canonical--which is responsible for the Ubuntu Linux operating system--writes:
Is open-source support better? No, not necessarily. It does a better job of meeting customer needs with lower risk and lower prices, and allows them to more easily support themselves. As for whether the person on the other side of the call is competent and diligent to resolve the customer's issue, that differs from company to company, and project to project.

Just like in proprietary software.[4]

Between open source software and closed source software, there are a series of tradeoffs, as Asay describes. For example, the customer support for either type of software has its benefits and limitations, but neither is inherently better. Of course, open-source software is generally free and supports community involvement in its development, a large corporation also has its own community of developers. See Open Source Software for more.

Ethical Concerns

The idea of the "open internet" implies a certain transparency amongst all users; when the goal is to better define and enhance what already exists, full disclosure of code and intentions is necessary to create a product that was better than before. The idea of information transparency in an environment where the ultimate goal is to connect everyone to everyone is inherently an uncomfortable idea. Stealing, cheating, bullying, nearly every morally incorrect action can be seen to magnify and become easier to do in this transparent environment. A common list of issues that arise include:

Additionally, the open nature of the internet has allowed organization such as 4chan and the ever controversial group Anonymous to flourish unfettered, despite criticism. For example, Wikileaks, under siege from a financial blockage attempting to shut the entire organization down, has still managed to survive and maintains an online presence, an ode to the openness of the internet, relatively free from the constraints of both governmental and corporate attempts to silence the organization.

Currently, the internet is a public sphere, open to anyone to add content. It is, essentially, open-sourced, as opposed to the closed source proprietary networks. The internet is controlled by everyone and no one, as no one entity has complete control over it. But, because anyone can practically do anything on it, there are concerns of online bullying, concerns that are magnified because of the anonymity afforded to internet users because of its open nature. There are no universal logging mechanisms that keep track of who is doing what (although IP addresses do come close, they are merely an address and not an identity). As a result, it is extremely easy for pirated movies, morally objectionable content (such as pornography and child pornography), and otherwise offensive content to be placed on the internet for all to see. Yet, the trade off is that, because of its open nature, "bad" content is balanced out by the good and informative, which rely on the same crowdsourcing mechanisms that contribute to the success of internet destinations such as Wikipedia (mediawiki article: Wikipedia) and reddit (mediawiki article: Reddit).

Concerns for the Individual

Sherry Turkle, in her recent book Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, analysis the potential impact of the open internet on individuals[5]. With constant access to a completely open digital jungle, the effects on individuals--in terms of how they interact in the world and even how they think--can be staggering; as the title of Turkle's book suggests, the open internet may indeed cause individuals to feel lonely despite the fact that anyone with an internet connection now has access to more people and information than anyone in all of human history--Individuals feel isolated, yet are connected to more people than most people ever knew even just as recently as 100 - 150 years ago. Turkle writes:

"There are no simple answers as to whether the Net is a place to be deliberate, to commit to life, and live without resignation. But these are good terms with which to start a conversation. That conversation would have us ask if these are the values by which we want to judge ourselves. If they are, and if we are living in a technological culture that does no support them, how can that culture be rebuilt to specifications that respect what we treasure--our sacred spaces. Could we, for example, build a Net that reweights privacy concerns, acknowledging that these, as much as information, are central to democratic life?...When Thoreau considered where I live and what I live for,' he tied together location and promises us lives on the screen. What values...follow from this new location? Immersed in simulation, where do we live, and what do we live for?" (pg 277)[5]

Turkle is referring to Thoreau's famous book Walden, his story of escaping the hustle and bustle of the ever-industrializing United States in the 1840s. To Thoreau, his experiences at Walden pond are analogous to a person today disconnecting from the internet (deactivating their Facebook account, not checking email, etc.). What Turkle is asking the reader is, are we willing to accept this digital life into our own, to merge the two and alter our sense of what creates bonds between people, or are we going to change the digital environment? Our digital culture may or may not be compatible with our traditional, person-to-person lives; if it isn't, then we need to reevaluate our values and morals, not only as individuals, but as a society, and be ready to accept the consequences of the internet. Yet, since the United Nations declared internet access a right, it seems that we are beginning to address the concerns of Turkle.

See Also

External Links


  1. Wikipedia: Copyright Clause
  2. United States Copyright Law, Title 17 U.S. Code, Chapter 3, Section 302. [1]
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Zittrain, Jonathan. The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Print.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Turkle, Sherry. (2011). Along Together: Why we Expect more From Technology and Less from Each other. Basic Books: New York, New York.

(back to index)