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Some guy says cellphones and other closed devices ruining the Internet

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According to Jonathan Zittrain, the Internet is being locked down by unhackable devices. In a Reuters interview, Zittrain, an Internet law expert, believes that devices like the iPhone and PCs are changing the way people use and “hack” the Internet, reducing our freedom while stealing from us the opportunity to create new and novel applications. He calls them “tethered devices.”

“They are appliances in that they are easy to use, while not easy to tinker with,” he writes. “They are tethered because it is easy to for their vendors to change them from afar, long after the devices have left warehouses and showrooms.”


While I understand his point — you don’t buy gadgets anymore, you by a Potemkin Village built and maintained by Microsoft, Apple, HP, or Dell — I find his arguments highly simplistic.

There are two types of electronics users — the user and the hacker. Never the twain shall meet. The user might turn into a hacker and vice versa, but the user wants to plug in their iPhone or N95 and move music over so they can listen to it on the train. The hacker wants to install apps and fresh firmware and go nuts. I believe, in my line of work, I’ve met more hackers than users. These are folks who are not afraid of EULAs and are generally accepting of technology as a creative act rather than a tool.

The rest of the world are users. They consume technology in the same way they consume television and they are happier for it. At work, they use email. They pull out a Blackberry and are excited by new mails, not the push technology in the background.

Zttrain believes we’re suffering from too much Internet regulation but I think his argument, at least in this limited article, is wrong. Internet regulation is a facade. If you or I wanted to connect over the Internet securely and share data and create novel applications, we could. No one could stop us. Even if they shut down the Internet, we’d be able to do it. He says that technologists have to trust Internet users and I think they do. In fact, they place too much trust in the average user, assuming their virus software and understanding of basic concepts is sound. As a result, email and the Internet has become a cesspool of Spam and phishing. Hackers aren’t affected, but users are.

This is where the tethering comes in. Operating systems tether you to one company who, in some way, has your interests at heart. Granted not in the way our grandmas had our best interests at heart, but as a service provider they know you might like some virus protection to go with your $2,000 computer. They provide it or provide access to the service. I’m glad my Dad is tethered just as I’m glad my son will be able to hack my PCs and laptops when he gets old enough to. I agree that the “user” mindset is damaging. I was discussing with my friend about my hacked 360 and he said he didn’t want to do it because it wasn’t fair to Microsoft. His loyalty is misplaced. It’s not fair to game producers, definitely, and I try to buy games I’d buy regardless — GTA IV for example — to support these producers. But I don’t “owe” Microsoft anything just as they don’t owe me anything. They sold me a box and I opened it up and had my way with it. Hackers can do that and users don’t have to. But users can always come over to the other side. It only takes a few clicks of a mouse.

Incidentally homeboy is also trying to sell a book so I guess he’s just trying to stir the pot up a little.

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