Emerging from the Chaos…

July 2nd, 2006 | by ian |

Adam over at Emergent Chaos clarifies some Network Neutrality concepts for his readers in his post Innovation, Emerging From Chaos.

He points out that “the regulatory apparatus has fairly clearly been captured by the regulated”. Basically the big telecom corporations have learned how to thrive on regulation, and this has implications for the proposal to further regulate them to “preserve” network neutrality. It bears mentioning that the arguments thus far on “network neutrality” are largely theoretical. By no means can todays internet be considered neutral or unbiased, there are huge challenges to be resolved. But I think Adam nails it when he identifies one of the most important issues at stake is the freedom to innovate, and I’m sure Ed Felten at Freedom to Tinker would agree heartily. It would seem that this is all part of a general threat that the kinds of freedoms associated with the internet (and society in the free world) will be rolled back through a combination of corporate greed (via lobby groups), FUD backlash (e.g. look what the kids are doing online, we need to prevent this!) and the “need” of the NSA to “find terrorists” by listening to all of our communications etc… I just want to say as part of this digression that I am LEAST worried about our ability to preserve freedoms on the internet, for the very reason that the internet “emerged from chaos” in the first place – it continually finds a way to lower the barriers of free communication. Personally I think it the internet will adapt to any attempts to subvert and repurpose it – thanks to its rather interesting economics.

The “rise of the stupid network” is a classic paper by David Isenberg, a telco guy outlining the threat posed to his industry by the internet: http://www.rageboy.com/stupidnet.html. Empowering the drive by the telecoms to turn our “stupid” decentralized internet into a “smart” centrally controlled network, Cisco et. al. are selling them their new line of content aware, end-to-end QoS, policy driven network products, after having some moderate success with them in the enterprise. None of them want to admit is that these products belong on the edge of the internet – only on private networks. The folks working on the Internet2 project experimented a lot with QoS and other similar features, trying to make their shared network more efficient for a variety of time-sensitive applications, and they found that increasing capacity (not prioritization) was the most economical approach.

There is a very interesting related battle starting to heat up in the wireless space. The wireless operators are enjoying huge profitability from their “smart” networks and are undoubtedly feeling threatened by any potential for large scale “stupid” wireless networks. This is why they have tried to take over 802.16 (“WiMAX”) and 802.20 working groups, and are mildly concerned about attempts to create large scale metro area wi-fi mesh networks (although those don’t work very well yet). They are loving the ability to change usurious rates for data over their cellular networks and want to make sure they can continue to prevent consumers from using certain devices and applications on their networks. Good luck finding Skype for your Blackberry, RIM is too much in bed with the telcos for that. Innovation is suppressed in the wireless space as a result, but they try to give the impression of innovation by bombarding us with “new products” such as increasingly poor quality phones and lots of useless features. Thankfully Microsoft is showing some promise in helping preserve customer choice with their wifi-enabled Skype capable smartphones. We’ll see where that goes…but no doubt the telcos want none of that.

The real question at hand is whether we should turn to regulation to control those who have already, as Adam points out, learned how to take advantage of regulation? Any kind of “network neutrality” regulation seems like it would be as flawed as the very discrimination of internet utilization (sorry, “productization of network services”) it is meant to resolve. The whole definition of and potential mechanisms for monitoring and enforcing network neutrality seem unresolvable.

Freedom of innovation and creativity is already under attack in the USA from a outdated system of IP law and incredibly cost effective big money lobbyists. But regardless of what direction the USA goes I at least faith in the ability of the freedoms which emerged through the internet to survive whether regulated or not – the market demand for such liberties are simply too great, on a worldwide basis. Nations which do not embrace and capitalize upon these freedoms will be left behind in a world of increasingly globalized economy and culture.

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