Overcoming Internet Stagnation

The DC Circuit’s blessing of the FCC’s Internet Service Provider regulations evoked a chorus of hosannahs from the predictable sources: reflexively anti-coprporate newspaper editorials, alarmist blogs, and advocacy groups with close ties big companies who do business over the Internet. While the more technically knowledgeable portions of the commentariat have strong reservations about regulating any part of the Internet as if it were the telephone network – such as the Internet Society’s Dan York and Internet grandfather Dave Farber – those who view the Internet as a mysterious black box were pleased.

A Preference for Stagnation

Net neutrality’s non-technical boosters are strongly resistant to education. Most people simply regard the Internet as it is today and don’t give much thought to its evolution and further progress. The White House falls into this category despite the fact that there’s a “shadow FCC” within the administration that offers suggestions (some say “orders”) to the FCC about how Internet services should be regulated. The White House press statement on the court decision essentially gives away the game:

Today’s ruling is a victory for the open, fair, and free Internet as we know it today…[The Internet] remains one of the greatest gifts our economy — and our society — has ever known.

The Internet as we know it today is the key. This has to be read in context of the dominant services we use on the Internet: Google for search and advertising, Facebook for social networking and advertising, Netflix for television streaming, Amazon for shopping and advertising, Spotify for music streaming, and Microsoft’s Skype for audio and video calling. These are all wonderful services that have achieved their dominance by doing things we want done better than their competitors do. There’s very little risk that any of these players will be dethroned from their niches any time soon and they’re all extremely profitable.

Dynamic Markets

But technology markets are shaped by the willingness of users to allocate their scarce time and attention to activities that are new and different. Nobody beat Microsoft in laptop operating systems, but the migration of users to smartphones and tablets pushed the entire laptop segment to negative growth, boosting the fortunes of Google and Apple and dimming Microsoft’s prospects. Portals were once a big deal on the web, which was good for Yahoo!, Excite, and Lycos. But two of those firms are out of business and the other is for sale because Google’s search engine and browser book marks became good enough to make portals unnecessary.

So a regulatory framework intended to lock-in the status quo will be perceived by many as good thing when it works as intended, protecting their experience from disruption. This is literally a case of not knowing what we’re missing.

Failed Institutions

It’s perfectly understandable that the firms thriving on today’s Internet would support a regulatory model designed to protect their interests. But it’s fascinating that organizations purporting to stand for the public interest would support a stagnation agenda. In some cases, these organizations appear to operate simply as front groups for sponsors, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Public interest organizations tend to be backward focused for several institutional reasons.

They tend to be directed by officers with more experience in law than technology, and law is very backward looking  because it’s guided by precedent. Public interest institutions also tend to focus acutely on shortcomings in the status quo such as those who are left behind, excess profits, and market dominance. Accelerating the rate of change simply complicates their mission because every major disruption brings new issues to address before the old ones have been resolved. Finally, tech buffs with great ideas for new products and services don’t work in advocacy groups, they’re too busy inventing, developing, and serving users.

Multi-Stakeholder Systems

So there’s a fundamental tension between the institutions that shape technology policy and technology developers. There’s way to eliminate this friction, and it wouldn’t be all that great if we could. Technology can have bad side effects, after all. Nuclear bombs aren’t the most cuddly toys in the world, tech markets can concentrate wealth and power, adoption rate differences can aggravate social inequality, and the profit motive isn’t able so solve problems where no money is to be made. So the public interest – the real one, not the front group variety – needs to be represented, but it can’t have the last word or the only word.

Lawmakers need to be involved, obviously, but they need help in wrapping their minds around the future capabilities of present-day technologies. And regulators have a role in translating big picture policies into enforceable regulations.

But you can’t devise and apply policies and regulations for emerging technologies without engineers taking a significant, if not leading role. Without someone speaking for interests of a better Internet in the future, we’re doomed to stagnation at best and a devolution of the Internet into something like a hybrid of the traditional telephone network and the old-school cable network. That’s the only destination we can reach by reflexively applying yesterday’s norms to today’s technologies.





  • Michael Elling

    Networks need two things to be sustainable and generative: open access and inter-actor settlements. Net neutrality itself is a contrived notion that doesn’t take into account either.

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