Zittrain: Beware the Rise of Closed Platforms

Imagine, if you will, that you bought a cloud-enabled toaster. And that one day, you got a sudden in-home upgrade to three toast slots from two. Then, just as suddenly, the new feature addition was rolled back. So you were left with two slots and some smushed toast. And then your toaster decided it wanted to start serving orange juice.

You don’t truly own the toaster — rather, according to Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, “You entered into a service relationship with a breakfast-oriented provider.” That’s the tragic and giggle-worthy analogy Zittrain uses to illustrate his worry that the cloud computing model gives too much control to platforms, which must be trusted to do good. Zittrain, expanding on op-eds he wrote last summer in The New York Times and Newsweek, spoke at the Supernova Conference in San Francisco today. His audience included co-panelist Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, a company Zittrain pinpointed as being at the center of the problem.

For instance, Zittrain called Amazon’s Kindle a device with “an operating system crying to get out.” To an even greater degree than with Apple’s iPhone, programmers can’t get direct access to develop on the Kindle platform, he noted. And Amazon retreating on the Kindle’s text-to-speech feature and zapping of U.S. customers’ copies of “1984” — despite a convincing apology by Jeff Bezos — show the company can beam itself down to make the device less useful when it chooses.

But what Zittrain worries about most is when the government gets involved and commands Amazon to disable something. He cited a 2002 case in which a remote navigation company sued the U.S. after the FBI forced it to tap the microphone in one of its customer’s cars. The company won, but only on the narrow grounds that the FBI wasn’t helping the customer with his navigation and emergency needs, as the product promised.

Zittrain also pointed to Amazon Mechanical Turk, where people can be put to near-automated work that makes them effectively zombies for largely non-useful purposes such as giving five-star reviews for devices they’ve never used. In this case he thinks government regulation, like the FTC’s new blogging disclosure policy, could be a good thing — at least in the sense that it pressures Amazon to police tasks on its platform.

Vogels, given a chance to respond to Zittrain’s takedown of his beloved cloud computing, replied that the situations Zittrain is concerned about are “not necessarily cloud-related,” and that platforms like Mechanical Turk can also be used for good. But further, Vogels said that users should feel comfortable trusting Amazon because the company’s mission is to be a “customer-centric company.” Which seemed to be exactly Zittrain’s point.