August 15, 2008

Herdict: The Verdict of the Herd

I’m still in the middle of reading The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, but one of the major “take-aways” from the book is a software suite that Zittrain has been working on at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society called Herdict, which is a portmanteau of “herd” and “verdict”.

From what I understand, one component of the suite, Herdict for Network Health, is a Firefox/IE plug-in that allows an end-user’s computer to tell “the herd”—that is, the other users of the software as a single anonymous entity—what sites it can access. If a user can’t access a particular site, they can ask the herd for more information; this “verdict” can help determine whether you can’t access a site because the site is down (in which case the entire herd can’t access it), or because a firewall is in the way (in which case only some of the herd can access it). This information can then be used to generate a snapshot of Internet health by geography, and empowers users to figure out the true cause behind cryptic messages like “The Connection Has Been Reset”.

The other component of the suite, Herdict for PC Health, is analogous in that it uses the same “herd verdict” concept to figure out how your PC is doing. Anonymized configuration data is sent from your computer to the herd, and if your computer is running slowly or abnormally, the herd can be queried for advice. Assuming that the Herdict software itself isn’t compromised, this can help identify malware, as well as pinpointing the causes of less malevolently-intentioned computer malfunction. For instance, if your computer keeps crashing, consultation with the herd could result in the discovery that everyone with your graphics card has been having the same problem, implying that you may need to change your graphics card drivers.

It looks like the network health component is still under development, but an initial version of the PC health software has been released and is available for download. It’s only available for Windows, so I installed it on my Mac’s VMware virtual machine running Windows XP; there isn’t much to say about it, because it doesn’t currently appear to have any usable features. Right-clicking the program’s tray icon and selecting a “View Data Sent” option from the popup menu just results in a dialog box with the text “There are no logs to be displayed”, despite the fact that the software has been running for a few hours. Selecting the “Herdict Online” option takes me to a Herdometer web page where all the data is aggregated for public use.

It’s a pretty interesting idea, and one that reminds me of Mitchell Baker’s desire to see Mozilla address the issue of data. Herdict is an example of software that uses data about the sites you visit and the programs you install on your computer for honorable ends, publishing it in an anonymized and aggregate form that is useful as a public asset.

The only thing I’m really curious about right now is: why isn’t Herdict open-source software? It seems like the ideal kind of project to open-source for a variety of reasons, and the non-profit, public benefit goals of the Berkman Center certainly seem to agree with the philosophy of community-based development. In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing this project evolve; it’s wonderful to see experiments that try to make the Internet and PCs safer places without sacrificing freedom and generativity.

© Atul Varma 2020