In the third installment of The Guardian’s weeklong series on the Internet, Oxford and Harvard cyberlaw professor Jonathan Zittrain considers how the proliferation of closed social networks and the “app” stores that dominate smartphones and other digital “appliances” make the Web more convenient at the cost of Internet freedom.
Smartphones are not programmable in the way personal computers are, Zittrain explains. The convenience enabled by the use of apps that fulfill most or all of our Internet needs comes with the price that our surfing experience is predetermined in a way that browsing on PCs is not. The resulting isolation functions as indirect censorship, he says. —ARK
Zittrain fretted that smartphones, which were just beginning to take off, might actually limit what users could do online compared with devices such as personal computers. Besides the obvious difference—a smartphone is light and can be slotted in a pocket; a personal computer is power-hungry and bulky—there’s another subtle but essential difference. Personal computers are “generative”: they can be programmed to do more than they were set up to. Smartphones, on the other hand, generally can’t be programmed directly by the user. For the most part, they’re appliances, as limited in what they can do as a coffee maker.
In his book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Zittrain noted: “We care little about the devices we’re using to access the net … we don’t think of that as significant to its future the way we think of [direct censorship].”