Universal broadband should be about control, not just access.

What's to come?
Aug. 15 2011 2:42 PM

In Defense of the Internet Craftsman

Universal broadband should be about control, not just access.

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This article arises from Future Tense,a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate.

A woman uses her blackberry. Click to expand image.
Smartphones demonstrate what's wrong with emphasizing access over control

In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg sparked an information revolution. The invention of movable type lowered barriers for sharing ideas, creating spaces for reformation and revolution. Today's Internet fulfills the same role, a flexible medium for sharing information and democratic communications. It was with this idealized Web in mind that President Obama used his 2011 State of the Union address to call for an expansion of next-generation mobile broadband.

But in all this praise of the Internet, we can't forget one thing: The Internet is a democratizing technology not because users have access to services like Twitter and Facebook but because it supported the development of these tools in the first place. Ignoring this distinction has led to the United States' unfortunate decision to craft public policies that focus primarily on expanding Internet "access" with too little attention paid to the fact that not all access is created equal (PDF). By focusing on access, disregarding the mounting threats to the openness of the Internet, our politicians and regulators are ignoring a growing divide between users with control over digital technologies and those without.

To save the Internet as a platform for innovation, we need to see concerted intervention to protect the rights of users to create. Most importantly, we must fight for the Internet craftsman—the individual who is free to develop networks, services, and applications and who shapes networking technologies better to meet her own needs and those of her community.

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The concept of the craftsman comes from Richard Sennett, a New York University sociologist. In his 2009 book, he advanced the idea of craftsmanship as the desire and ability to innovate and adapt a medium to create a new form or function, like a carpenter reimagining a block of wood as a table. The Internet offers a similar opportunity for digital journeymen. As Sennett argues, open-source tools like Linux serve as a digital toolbox. Any Internet denizen with the expertise should have the freedom to deploy an application or build a network to fulfill yet-unimagined needs. But the Internet craftsman is currently under threat, increasingly locked out and restricted.

This quiet shift is perhaps best exemplified by the current state of mobile connectivity. Different levels of control, allowed on different connections, affect how users can access and share information. For example, in 2009, AT&T stated that it considered smartphones tantamount to personal computers. (The company used this classification to justify blocking a streaming-TV app from iPhones, claiming that its acceptable use policy prohibits the "redirect [of] a TV signal to a personal computer.") But Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain has convincingly documented the very uncomputerlike nature of the iPhone. As he described in his book The Future of the Internet—and How To Stop It,the iPhone is part of a new class of devices that actively keep the end user from having control. Apple's App Store determines what applications can be submitted (and therefore easily installed on users' iPhones). And Apple is not alone. When T-Mobile released the HTC G2 with Google, the phone was designed to prevent users from changing the operating system to add more functionality, such as turning a smartphone into a mobile hotspot, also known as tethering. Another smartphone, the Motorola Droid X, contains an "eFuse" whose purpose is to render the device inoperable if a user tries to modify the device.

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