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Arvind Narayanan – Digital Feudalism Is Upon Us. How Do We Respond?

Thursday, May 9, 2013
12:30 pm


Sherrerd Hall, 3rd floor open space
Princeton, NJ 08544 United States + Google Map

Streaming Live:
Food and discussion begins at 12:30 pm. Everyone invited.

The Internet and digital technologies are quickly evolving toward the very antithesis of their original decentralized roots. In the new model adopted by smartphones and other devices, the key is vertical integration — hardware, software platform, and an identity layer packaged together, along with an app and content ecosystem. This feudal paradigm, with a small number of companies controlling their respective non-interoperable digital territories, is winning out — users, conceptualized as serfs, give up some freedoms but gain security, usability and convenience, and app and content providers finally have a workable revenue model.

Regardless of one’s normative stance on this development, some serious concerns must be recognized. For example: 1. Tracking and surveillance become qualitatively different threats. 2. The shift away from open APIs hurts innovation. 3. With digital goods, the concept of resale, and hence the first-sale doctrine, are becoming meaningless in practice. 4. Companies control our digital identities, and getting locked out can mean losing one’s digital life.

How should we — as scholars, as citizens — should adjust to living in a feudal world? Should tech innovators be content to tinker at the edges, or try to strike at the roots? Which laws need to be reexamined, and what new laws do we need? What are the implications for antitrust policy, and for privacy? We may not find the answers right away, but let us start by identifying all the questions that need to be asked.

This is based on joint work in progress with Jonathan Mayer at Stanford.


Arvind Narayanan is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Princeton. He studies information privacy and security and has a side-interest in technology policy. His research has shown that data anonymization is broken in fundamental ways, for which he jointly received the 2008 Privacy Enhancing Technologies Award. Narayanan is one of the researchers behind the “Do Not Track” proposal. His most recent research uses Web measurement to increase online transparency and uncover breaches of privacy and fairness.

Narayanan is an affiliated faculty member at CITP and an affiliate scholar at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. You can follow him on Twitter at @random_walker and on Google+ here.