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The God of the Internet and Ownership

According to Wikipedia, Jon Postel was known as the “god” of the internet. Our guest in seminar last week, Professor Jonathan Zittrain, talked about him extensively, but until then I had never heard of him (I hope I’m not alone). But how can this be!? It’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I have used the internet for hours a day for most of my life and had no knowledge of one of the most important figures in the history of the internet until a week ago.

What struck me most about learning about Postel is that he was a single person with so much influence over  the internet. I may not know exactly what the extent of the internet was during his lifetime, and I know it has grown and developed since his passing in 1998, but it is mind-blowing to reconcile my image of the internet as this huge, seemingly ungoverned space with that of one person that users depended on for IP address allocation and, as Professor Zittrain discussed extensively, root-zone management in DNS. It makes the internet far more personal— which was likely fitting in Postel’s time. Nevertheless, it also demonstrates the risks of having one person take on so much responsibility independently—when Postel died suddenly of heart complications during surgery, others had to scramble to pick up the pieces and standardize the work he had been doing.

To switch gears a bit, Professor Zittrain also discussed the move from unowned to owned when it comes to the internet. He clarified his statement by bringing up Internet applications, which are a form of ownership because when using an app the user can only access the internet in  the ways through which its designer intended. And apps are becoming increasingly prevalent, leading to a gradual shift from browsers themselves to apps. I worry that this threatens or at least limits free speech—At least, that it limits the accessibility and frequency with which users will be able to access the free internet. Apps lead to increased curation of the internet, which can be very effective when they are used for specific purposes. But if we go too far in this direction they may become like blinkers, blocking any information that the user doesn’t purposefully seek out as blinkers block out any peripheral vision.




1 Comment

  1. Mike Smith

    Have you read Walter Isaacson’s book titled “The Innovators”? Now that you know about Jon Postel, do you think he should have been included in Isaacson’s book? He’s not mentioned at all. If Walter overlooked Jon, it’s probably not surprising that you did too. Jon did his job because it had to be done. He didn’t do it for the fame.

    This reminds me of some lines from “Live Free or Die Hard”:

    John McClane: You know what you get for being a hero? Nothin’. You get shot at. You get a little pat on the back, blah, blah, blah, attaboy. You get divorced. Your wife can’t remember your last name. Your kids don’t want to talk to you. You get to eat a lot of meals by yourself. Trust me, kid, nobody wants to be that guy.

    Matt Farrell: Then why you doing this?

    John McClane: Because there’s no body else to do it right now, that’s why. Believe me, if there were somebody else to do it, I’d let them do it, but there’s not. So we’re doing it.

    Matt Farrell: Ah. That’s what makes you that guy.