Friday, September 3, 2010

The Economist: "A town crier in the global village"

The Economist on technology and protest
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A cross-border fraternity that strives to be seen, heard and heeded
Sep 2nd 2010 | OTTAWA | from the print edition

NEARLY four years ago, a web-based political movement set itself the modest task of “closing the gap between the world we have and world most people everywhere want”. Calling their group Avaaz, which means “voice” in several languages, the founders aimed to reproduce globally some of the success which their progenitors—like America’s, and Australia’s Getup!—had enjoyed in national political arenas.

By its own lights, the movement, using 14 languages and engaged in a mind-boggling list of causes, has had some spectacular successes. Within the next few months, membership will top 6m. The number of individual actions taken (from bombarding a politician with a well-aimed message, or funding a poster campaign, to helping provide satellite phones to Burmese monks) is estimated at over 23m. Among the recent developments Avaaz claims to have influenced are a new anti-corruption law in Brazil; a move by Britain to create a marine-conservation zone in the Indian Ocean; and the spiking of a proposal to allow more hunting of whales.

But is there any objective measure by which the reach of a global e-protest movement can be assessed? Sceptics use words like “clicktavism” to describe political action that demands nothing more of a protester than pressing a button, which may just imply curiosity; and it is rarely possible to prove beyond doubt that e-campaigning is a decisive factor in a political outcome.

On the other hand, argues Ricken Patel, a co-founder of Avaaz, digital activism rarely ends with the click of a mouse. Avaaz’s campaign against the death sentence for adultery imposed on an Iranian woman asks members to phone Iranian embassies (and provides numbers); members are also being urged to put pressure on the leaders of Brazil and Turkey to intercede with Iran. Avaaz is collecting funds for a campaign in the Brazilian and Turkish press, too.

Avaaz’s other demands range from the simple—close Guantánamo, because it plays into the hands of Osama bin Laden—to the very broad: fight climate change, avoid a clash of civilisations. Despite the risk of blurred signals, the variety of causes is also a strength, says Dave Karpf, an American analyst of the net; it allows the group to act as a hub, attracting members to one campaign and telling them about others. As Evgeny Morozov, a writer on the internet (including for The Economist) points out, Avaaz has lost whatever monopoly it had over the creation of instant, cross-border lobbies; you can do that on Facebook. But the way Avaaz bunches unlikely causes together may be an asset in a world where campaigns, like race and class, can still segregate people, not reconcile them.

The Economist: "A cyber-house divided"

The economnist on Tribalism online

E-communication and society

Online as much as in the real world, people bunch together in mutually suspicious groups—and in both realms, peacemaking is an uphill struggle
Sep 2nd 2010 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition

IN 2007 Danah Boyd heard a white American teenager describe MySpace, the social network, as “like ghetto or whatever”. At the time, Facebook was stealing members from MySpace, but most people thought it was just a fad: teenagers tired of networks, the theory went, just as they tired of shoes.

But after hearing that youngster, Ms Boyd, a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, felt that something more than whimsy might be at work. “Ghetto” in American speech suggests poor, unsophisticated and black. That led to her sad conclusion: in their online life, American teenagers were recreating what they knew from the physical world—separation by class and race.

A generation of digital activists had hoped that the web would connect groups separated in the real world. The internet was supposed to transcend colour, social identity and national borders. But research suggests that the internet is not so radical. People are online what they are offline: divided, and slow to build bridges.

This summer Ms Boyd heard from a scholar in Brazil who, after reading her research, saw a parallel. Almost 80% of internet users in Brazil use Orkut, a social network owned by Google. As internet use rises in Brazil and reaches new social groups, better-off Brazilians are leaving Orkut for Facebook. That is partly because they have more friends abroad (with whom they link via Facebook) and partly snobbishness. Posh Brazilians have a new word: orkutificação, or becoming “orkutised”. A place undergoing orkutificação is full of strangers, open to anyone. Brazilians are now the second biggest users of the micro-blogging site Twitter; but some wonder whether the dreaded o-word awaits that neighbourhood too.

Facebook’s architecture makes it easy for groups to remain closed. For example, it suggests new friends using an algorithm that looks at existing ones. But simpler, more open networks also permit self-segregation. On Twitter, members can choose to “follow” anyone they like, and can form groups by embedding words and shortened phrases known as “hashtags” in their messages. In May Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas, who research the display of social information, looked at the ten most popular hashtags on Twitter and discovered that most were used almost exclusively by either black or white authors. The hashtag “#cookout” was almost entirely black; the hashtag “#oilspill” almost entirely white.

With ideology, the pair’s findings were a bit more hopeful; liberals and conservatives at least communicate—by trading taunts. They do so by appropriating hashtags so as to surface in each others’ searches. By now, only one keyword in American political discourse remains unaffected by such games of tag: #NPR, or National Public Radio, used only by liberals.

All this argues for a cautious response to claims that e-communications abate conflict by bringing mutually suspicious people together. Facebook has a site called “Peace on Facebook,” where it describes how it can “decrease world conflict” by letting people from different backgrounds connect. (The optimism is catching; this spring a founder of Twitter described his service as “a triumph of humanity”.)

Peace on Facebook keeps a ticker of friend connections made each day between people from rival places. Israelis and Palestinians, the site claims, made about 15,000 connections on July 25th, the most recent available day. That is hard to put in context; Facebook does not make public the total number of friendships in any country. But Ethan Zuckerman, a blogger and activist, used independent data to estimate that these links represent roughly 1-2% of the combined total of friendships on Israeli and Palestinian accounts. Using the same method for Greece and Turkey, his estimate was 0.1%. That understates the role of Greek-Turkish friendship groups, or groups dedicated to music or films that both countries like. Among, say, people from either country who are studying outside their homeland (and have a better-than-average chance of becoming decision-makers), the share of trans-Aegean links would be far higher. And their mere existence sends an important moral signal.

But Mr Zuckerman frets that the internet really serves to boost ties within countries, not between them. Using data from Google, he looked at the top 50 news sites in 30 countries. Almost every country reads all but 5% of its news from domestic sources. Mr Zuckerman believes that goods and services still travel much farther than ideas, and that the internet allows us to be “imaginary cosmopolitans”.

Peace on Facebook offers data for India and Pakistan, too. That is even harder to put in context. Pakistan has banned Facebook in the past, and offers too few users to qualify even for independent estimates. John Kelly, founder of Morningside Analytics, a firm that analyses social networks, examined links between blogs and twitter accounts in India and Pakistan and discovered two hubs that link the two countries. South Asian expats in London who self-identify as “Desis”—people from the sub-continent—link freely to each other and to their home countries. And cricket fans in both countries link up spontaneously.

Mr Kelly believes that clusters of internet activity, when they do cross national borders, flow from pre-existing identities. Ethnic Baloch bloggers in three different countries link mainly to each other. Blogs in Afghanistan show some ties to NGOs and American service members, but a far greater number to Iranian news services and poetry blogs. That reflects old reality, not some new discovery. There is also some hope in Morningside’s data. Four websites most consistently account for links between countries: YouTube, Wikipedia, the BBC and, a distant fourth, Global Voices Online. The last of these, launched at Harvard University in 2005 and mainly funded by American foundations, works to create links between bloggers in different countries, and to find what it calls “bridge bloggers”: expats and cultural translators, like London’s Desis, who help explain their countries to each other. (This newspaper has a loose editorial collaboration with the site.)

Onnik Krikorian, Global Voices’ editor in Central Asia, is a British citizen with an Armenian name. He couldn’t go to Azerbaijan and had difficulty establishing any online contact with the country until he went to a conference in Tbilisi in 2008 and met four Azeri bloggers. They gave him their cards, and he found them on Facebook. To his surprise, they agreed to be his friends. Mr Krikorian has since found Facebook to be an ideal platform to build ties. Those first four contacts made it easier for other Azeris to link up with him.

But the internet is not magic; it is a tool. Anyone who wants to use it to bring nations closer together has to show initiative, and be ready to travel physically as well as virtually. As with the telegraph before it—also hailed as a tool of peace—the internet does nothing on its own.


The Economist: The web's new walls

The internet

How the threats to the internet’s openness can be averted

Sep 2nd 2010 | from the print edition

WHEN George W. Bush referred to “rumours on the, uh, internets” during the 2004 presidential campaign, he was derided for his cluelessness—and “internets” became a shorthand for a lack of understanding of the online world. But what looked like ignorance then looks like prescience now. As divergent forces tug at the internet, it is in danger of losing its universality and splintering into separate digital domains.

The internet is as much a trade pact as an invention. A network of networks, it has grown at an astonishing rate over the past 15 years because the bigger it got, the more it made sense for other networks to connect to it. Its open standards made such interconnections cheap and easy, dissolving boundaries between existing academic, corporate and consumer networks (remember CompuServe and AOL?). Just as a free-trade agreement between countries increases the size of the market and boosts gains from trade, so the internet led to greater gains from the exchange of data and allowed innovation to flourish. But now the internet is so large and so widely used that countries, companies and network operators want to wall bits of it off, or make parts of it work in a different way, to promote their own political or commercial interests (see article).

Walled wide web

Three sets of walls are being built. The first is national. China’s “great firewall” already imposes tight controls on internet links with the rest of the world, monitoring traffic and making many sites or services unavailable. Other countries, including Iran, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, have done similar things, and other governments are tightening controls on what people can see and do on the internet.

Second, companies are exerting greater control by building “walled gardens”—an approach that appeared to have died out a decade ago. Facebook has its own closed, internal e-mail system, for example. Google has built a suite of integrated web-based services. Users of Apple’s mobile devices access many internet services through small downloadable software applications, or apps, rather than a web browser. By dictating which apps are allowed on its devices, Apple has become a gatekeeper. As apps spread to other mobile devices, and even cars and televisions, other firms will do so too.

Third, there are concerns that network operators looking for new sources of revenue will strike deals with content providers that will favour those websites prepared to pay up. Al Franken, a Democratic senator, spelled out his nightmare scenario in a speech in July: right-wing news sites loading five times faster than left-wing blogs. He and other advocates of “net neutrality” want new laws to stop networks discriminating between different types of traffic. But network operators say that could hamper innovation, and those on the right see net neutrality as a socialist plot to regulate the internet.

Thus the incentives that used to favour greater interconnection now point the other way. Suggesting that “The Web is Dead”, as Wired magazine did recently, is going a bit far. But the net is losing some of its openness and universality.

That’s not always a bad thing. The profits which Apple harvests from its walled garden have enabled it to provide services and devices that delight its customers, who may be happy to trade a little openness for greater security or ease of use; if not, they can go elsewhere. While some parents welcome Apple’s policy of blocking racy apps from its devices, for example, anyone who dislikes it can buy a Nokia or an Android phone instead. And existing antitrust laws can always be brought to bear if any company establishes and then abuses a dominant position in, say, mobile-phone operating systems or advertising platforms—something that has not happened yet.

Restrictions imposed by governments are more troubling, and harder to deal with. There is not much that outsiders can do about China’s great firewall. But Western governments can at least set a good example. Australia’s plan to build a Chinese-style firewall in an effort to block child pornography and bomb-making instructions, for instance, is daft and should be scrapped. It will be easy to evade, and traditional law-enforcement approaches are a better way to handle such problems than messing with the internet’s plumbing.

Governments inclined to censor might be swayed by arguments that focus on the economic benefits of openness. Duy Hoang, an American-based campaigner for democracy in Vietnam, has suggested that foreign critics stress the internet’s role in fostering trade, development, education and jobs. Similarly, China could be reminded how much more its scientists could achieve if they had unfettered access to information.

What about the risk that operators will fragment the internet by erecting new road-blocks or toll booths? In theory, competition between providers of internet access should prevent this from happening. Any broadband provider that tries to block particular sites or services, for example, will quickly lose customers to rival firms—provided there are plenty of them.

Why net neutrality is a distraction

But that is not the case in America. Its vitriolic net-neutrality debate is a reflection of the lack of competition in broadband access. The best solution would be to require telecoms operators to open their high-speed networks to rivals on a wholesale basis, as is the case almost everywhere in the industrialised world. America’s big network operators have long argued that being forced to share their networks would undermine their incentives to invest in new infrastructure, and thus hamper the roll-out of broadband. But that has not happened in other countries that have mandated such “open access”, and enjoy faster and cheaper broadband than America. Net neutrality is difficult to define and enforce, and efforts to do so merely address the symptom (concern about discrimination) rather than the underlying cause (lack of competition). Rivalry between access providers offers the best protection against the erection of new barriers to the flow of information online.

This newspaper has always championed free trade, open markets and vigorous competition in the physical world. The same principles should be applied on the internet as well.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Economist: "A Virtual Counter-Revolution"

The Economist on the future of the internet

Sep 2nd 2010 | from the print edition

The internet has been a great unifier of people, companies and online networks. Powerful forces are threatening to balkanise it

THE first internet boom, a decade and a half ago, resembled a religious movement. Omnipresent cyber-gurus, often framed by colourful PowerPoint presentations reminiscent of stained glass, prophesied a digital paradise in which not only would commerce be frictionless and growth exponential, but democracy would be direct and the nation-state would no longer exist. One, John-Perry Barlow, even penned “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”.

Even though all this sounded Utopian when it was preached, it reflected online reality pretty accurately. The internet was a wide-open space, a new frontier. For the first time, anyone could communicate electronically with anyone else—globally and essentially free of charge. Anyone was able to create a website or an online shop, which could be reached from anywhere in the world using a simple piece of software called a browser, without asking anyone else for permission. The control of information, opinion and commerce by governments—or big companies, for that matter—indeed appeared to be a thing of the past. “You have no sovereignty where we gather,” Mr Barlow wrote.

The lofty discourse on “cyberspace” has long changed. Even the term now sounds passé. Today another overused celestial metaphor holds sway: the “cloud” is code for all kinds of digital services generated in warehouses packed with computers, called data centres, and distributed over the internet. Most of the talk, though, concerns more earthly matters: privacy, antitrust, Google’s woes in China, mobile applications, green information technology (IT). Only Apple’s latest iSomethings seem to inspire religious fervour, as they did again this week.

Again, this is a fair reflection of what is happening on the internet. Fifteen years after its first manifestation as a global, unifying network, it has entered its second phase: it appears to be balkanising, torn apart by three separate, but related forces.

First, governments are increasingly reasserting their sovereignty. Recently several countries have demanded that their law-enforcement agencies have access to e-mails sent from BlackBerry smart-phones. This week India, which had threatened to cut off BlackBerry service at the end of August, granted RIM, the device’s maker, an extra two months while authorities consider the firm’s proposal to comply. However, it has also said that it is going after other communication-service providers, notably Google and Skype.

Second, big IT companies are building their own digital territories, where they set the rules and control or limit connections to other parts of the internet. Third, network owners would like to treat different types of traffic differently, in effect creating faster and slower lanes on the internet.

It is still too early to say that the internet has fragmented into “internets”, but there is a danger that it may splinter along geographical and commercial boundaries. (The picture above is a visual representation of the “nationality” of traffic on the internet, created by the University of California’s Co-operative Association for Internet Data Analysis: America is in pink, Britain in dark blue, Italy in pale blue, Sweden in green and unknown countries in white.) Just as it was not preordained that the internet would become one global network where the same rules applied to everyone, everywhere, it is not certain that it will stay that way, says Kevin Werbach, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

To grasp why the internet might unravel, it is necessary to understand how, in the words of Mr Werbach, “it pulled itself together” in the first place. Even today, this seems like something of a miracle. In the physical world, most networks—railways, airlines, telephone systems—are collections of more or less connected islands. Before the internet and the world wide web came along, this balkanised model was also the norm online. For a long time, for instance, AOL and CompuServe would not even exchange e-mails.

Economists point to “network effects” to explain why the internet managed to supplant these proprietary services. Everybody had strong incentives to join: consumers, companies and, most important, the networks themselves (the internet is in fact a “network of networks”). The more the internet grew, the greater the benefits became. And its founding fathers created the basis for this virtuous circle by making it easy for networks to hook up and for individuals to get wired.

Yet economics alone do not explain why the internet rather than a proprietary service prevailed (as Microsoft did in software for personal computers, or PCs). One reason may be that the rapid rise of the internet, originally an obscure academic network funded by America’s Department of Defence, took everyone by surprise. “The internet was able to develop quietly and organically for years before it became widely known,” writes Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard University, in his 2008 book, “The Future of the Internet—And How To Stop It”. In other words, had telecoms firms, for instance, suspected how big it would become, they might have tried earlier to change its rules.

Whatever the cause, the open internet has been a boon for humanity. It has not only allowed companies and other organisations of all sorts to become more efficient, but enabled other forms of production, notably “open source” methods, in which groups of people, often volunteers, all over the world develop products, mostly pieces of software, collectively. Individuals have access to more information than ever, communicate more freely and form groups of like-minded people more easily.

Even more important, the internet is an open platform, rather than one built for a specific service, like the telephone network. Mr Zittrain calls it “generative”: people can tinker with it, creating new services and elbowing existing ones aside. Any young company can build a device or develop an application that connects to the internet, provided it follows certain, mostly technical conventions. In a more closed and controlled environment, an Amazon, a Facebook or a Google would probably never have blossomed as it did.

Forces of fragmentation

However, this very success has given rise to the forces that are now pulling the internet apart. The cracks are most visible along geographical boundaries. The internet is too important for governments to ignore. They are increasingly finding ways to enforce their laws in the digital realm. The most prominent is China’s “great firewall”. The Chinese authorities are using the same technology that companies use to stop employees accessing particular websites and online services. This is why Google at first decided to censor its Chinese search service: there was no other way to be widely accessible in the country.

But China is by no means the only country erecting borders in cyberspace. The Australian government plans to build a firewall to block material showing the sexual abuse of children and other criminal or offensive content. The OpenNet Initiative, an advocacy group, lists more than a dozen countries that block internet content for political, social and security reasons. They do not need especially clever technology: governments go increasingly after dominant online firms because they are easy to get hold of. In April Google published the numbers of requests it had received from official agencies to remove content or provide information about users. Brazil led both counts (see chart 1).

Not every request or barrier has a sinister motive. Australia’s firewall is a case in point, even if it is a clumsy way of enforcing the law. It would be another matter, however, if governments started tinkering with the internet’s address book, the Domain Name System (DNS). This allows the network to look up the computer on which a website lives. If a country started its own DNS, it could better control what people can see. Some fear this is precisely what China and others might do one day.

To confuse matters, the DNS is already splintering for a good reason. It was designed for the Latin alphabet, which was fine when most internet users came from the West. But because more and more netizens live in other parts of the world—China boasts 420m—last October the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the body that oversees the DNS, allowed domain names entirely in other scripts. This makes things easier for people in, say, China, Japan or Russia, but marks another step towards the renationalisation of the internet.

Many media companies have already gone one step further. They use another part of the internet’s address system, the “IP numbers” that identify computers on the network, to block access to content if consumers are not in certain countries. Try viewing a television show on Hulu, a popular American video service, from Europe and it will tell you: “We’re sorry, currently our video library can only be streamed within the United States.” Similarly, Spotify, a popular European music-streaming service, cannot be reached from America.

Yet it is another kind of commercial attempt to carve up the internet that is causing more concern. Devotees of a unified cyberspace are worried that the online world will soon start looking as it did before the internet took over: a collection of more or less connected proprietary islands reminiscent of AOL and CompuServe. One of them could even become as dominant as Microsoft in PC software. “We’re heading into a war for control of the web,” Tim O’Reilly, an internet savant who heads O’Reilly Media, a publishing house, wrote late last year. “And in the end, it’s more than that, it’s a war against the web as an interoperable platform.”

The trend to more closed systems is undeniable. Take Facebook, the web’s biggest social network. The site is a fast-growing, semi-open platform with more than 500m registered users. Its American contingent spends on average more than six hours a month on the site and less than two on Google. Users have identities specific to Facebook and communicate mostly via internal messages. The firm has its own rules, covering, for instance, which third-party applications may run and how personal data are dealt with.

Apple is even more of a world apart. From its iPhone and iPad, people mostly get access to online services not through a conventional browser but via specialised applications available only from the company’s “App Store”. Granted, the store has lots of apps—about 250,000—but Apple nonetheless controls which ones make it onto its platform. It has used that power to keep out products it does not like, including things that can be construed as pornographic or that might interfere with its business, such as an app for Google’s telephone service. Apple’s press conference to show off its new wares on September 1st was streamed live over the internet but could be seen only on its own devices.

Even Google can be seen as a platform unto itself, if a very open one. The world’s biggest search engine now offers dozens of services, from news aggregation to word processing, all of which are tied together and run on a global network of dozens of huge data-centres. Yet Google’s most important service is its online advertising platform, which serves most text-based ads on the web. Being the company’s main source of revenue, critics say, it is hardly a model of openness and transparency.

There is no conspiracy behind the emergence of these platforms. Firms are in business to make money. And such phenomena as social networks and online advertising exhibit strong network effects, meaning that a dominant market leader is likely to emerge. What is more, most users these days are not experts, but average consumers, who want secure, reliable products. To create a good experience on mobile devices, which more and more people will use to get onto the internet, hardware, software and services must be more tightly integrated than on PCs.

Net neutrality, or not?

Discussion of these proprietary platforms is only beginning. A lot of ink, however, has already been spilt on another form of balkanisation: in the plumbing of the internet. Most of this debate, particularly in America, is about “net neutrality”. This is one of the internet’s founding principles: that every packet of data, regardless of its contents, should be treated the same way, and the best effort should always be made to forward it.

Proponents of this principle want it to become law, out of concern that network owners will breach it if they can. Their nightmare is what Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University, calls “the Tony Soprano vision of networking”, alluding to a television series about a mafia family. If operators were allowed to charge for better service, they could extort protection money from every website. Those not willing to pay for their data to be transmitted quickly would be left to crawl in the slow lane. “Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the internet such a success,” said Vinton Cerf, one of the network’s founding fathers (who now works for Google), at a hearing in Congress.

Opponents of the enshrining of net neutrality in law—not just self-interested telecoms firms, but also experts like Dave Farber, another internet elder—argue that it would be counterproductive. Outlawing discrimination of any kind could discourage operators from investing to differentiate their networks. And given the rapid growth in file-sharing and video (see chart 2), operators may have good reason to manage data flows, lest other traffic be crowded out.

The issue is not as black and white as it seems. The internet has never been as neutral as some would have it. Network providers do not guarantee a certain quality of service, but merely promise to do their best. That may not matter for personal e-mails, but it does for time-sensitive data such as video. What is more, large internet firms like Amazon and Google have long redirected traffic onto private fast lanes that bypass the public internet to speed up access to their websites.

Whether such preferential treatment becomes more widespread, and even extortionary, will probably depend on the market and how it is regulated. It is telling that net neutrality has become far more politically controversial in America than it has elsewhere. This is a reflection of the relative lack of competition in America’s broadband market. In Europe and Japan, “open access” rules require network operators to lease parts of their networks to other firms on a wholesale basis, thus boosting competition. A study comparing broadband markets, published in 2009 by Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet & Society, found that countries with such rules enjoy faster, cheaper broadband service than America, because the barrier to entry for new entrants is much lower. And if any access provider starts limiting what customers can do, they will defect to another.

America’s operators have long insisted that open-access requirements would destroy their incentive to build fast, new networks: why bother if you will be forced to share it? After intense lobbying, America’s telecoms regulators bought this argument. But the lesson from elsewhere in the industrialised world is that it is not true. The result, however, is that America has a small number of powerful network operators, prompting concern that they will abuse their power unless they are compelled, by a net-neutrality law, to treat all traffic equally. Rather than trying to mandate fairness in this way—net neutrality is very hard to define or enforce—it makes more sense to address the underlying problem: the lack of competition.

It should come as no surprise that the internet is being pulled apart on every level. “While technology can gravely wound governments, it rarely kills them,” Debora Spar, president of Barnard College at Columbia University, wrote several years ago in her book, “Ruling the Waves”. “This was all inevitable,” argues Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired, under the headline “The Web is Dead” in the September issue of the magazine. “A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others.”

Yet predictions are hazardous, particularly in IT. Governments may yet realise that a freer internet is good not just for their economies, but also for their societies. Consumers may decide that it is unwise to entrust all their secrets to a single online firm such as Facebook, and decamp to less insular alternatives, such as Diaspora.

Similarly, more open technology could also still prevail in the mobile industry. Android, Google’s smart-phone platform, which is less closed than Apple’s, is growing rapidly and gained more subscribers in America than the iPhone in the first half of this year. Intel and Nokia, the world’s biggest chipmaker and the biggest manufacturer of telephone handsets, are pushing an even more open platform called MeeGo. And as mobile devices and networks improve, a standards-based browser could become the dominant access software on the wireless internet as well.

Stuck in the slow lane

If, however, the internet continues to go the other way, this would be bad news. Should the network become a collection of proprietary islands accessed by devices controlled remotely by their vendors, the internet would lose much of its “generativity”, warns Harvard’s Mr Zittrain. Innovation would slow down and the next Amazon, Google or Facebook could simply be, well, Amazon, Google or Facebook.

The danger is not that these islands become physically separated, says Andrew Odlyzko, a professor at the University of Minnesota. There is just too much value in universal connectivity, he argues. “The real question is how high the walls between these walled gardens will be.” Still, if the internet loses too much of its universality, cautions Mr Werbach of the Wharton School, it may indeed fall apart, just as world trade can collapse if there is too much protectionism. Theory demonstrates that interconnected networks such as the internet can grow quickly, he explains—but also that they can dissolve quickly. “This looks rather unlikely today, but if it happens, it will be too late to do anything about it.”