Science & Technology

A Commencement Speech That Doesn't Suck

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not zittrain, but might as well be

Jonathan Zittrain, an expert on legal threats to the Internet, is obviously a huge nerd. He recently gave a commencement speech at his former high school which features some great geek-gazelle-stalked-by-lions-on-the-high-school-savanna moments. (One crucial mistake: "Wearing my school backpack over both shoulders. I was alerted to my lack of fashion sense when someone drop kicked it from behind while I was wearing it. It sailed about six inches off the ground, taking me with it like a parachute in an updraft, and I landed with it upside down across my stomach.)

Zittrain, now a law professor at Harvard, maintains a site called Chilling Effects which "monitors the legal climate for Internet activity." He's also the co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

One day the government of Pakistan sought to filter out YouTube from its citizens. It told its Internet Service Providers to block access to YouTube. One small ISP carried out the order by sending a small lie to its subscribers and neighbors: it announced that it was in fact YouTube. Its subscribers' packets were then drawn there like a magnet, where the ISP could throw them away, since the point was to block YouTube.

But it didn't stop there. Within a few minutes word had ricocheted around the Internet that YouTube had moved, and if you were here in Pittsburgh trying to reach YouTube, your packets were going to Pakistan and not coming back—and there was nothing that YouTube, one of the most popular Web sites in the world, and its owner Google, the most powerful company in the world, were particularly privileged to do about it. So how was the problem solved? It's as if the Bat Signal went up, and the call was answered by NANOG, the North American Network Operators Group, an informal mailing list of nerds, some of whom work for various ISPs. NANOG members diagnosed the issue and promulgated a fix. It's as if your house were to catch on fire. The bad news is that there's no fire department. The good news is that some of your neighbors promptly come over with garden hoses and put the fire out, expecting neither payment nor recognition for their help. It's an extremely powerful civic defense system.

More from the Berkman Center universe here and here

Via David Weinberger