The Internet Wants to Be Free

June 4th, 2006 | by ian |

In my previous post I argue that internet neutrality legislation could help ease the transition to an internet society and economy. On further thought and debate I’m not really sure that regulation would be the most constructive response to the threat of network discrimination. The internet has a long history of self organization and I would certainly prefer that it could continue to evolve “naturally.” Therefore I expand in this post how and why I think th internet will continue to be an open and free network regardless of power plays for internet control.

Networks aren’t neutral.

Networks are not “neutral” by nature. I design and run networks for a living. Some stand alone while others are connected to the internet. Private networks are highly controlled. Many private networks block anything unless there is a business case to allow it, at which point the allowance is carefully engineered. If you own a network it is simply too expensive to let it run wild especially in the age of malware. It is a legitimate concern for private networks that applications such as Skype can elude detection (update here) and much effort and corporate dollars go into keeping on top of the spy-vs-spy battle for access into and out of their networks.

The internet is a different, and very special kind of network. The internet has emerged from the cooperation and collaboration of countless public and private networks not to mention individual contributors. Most internet service provider networks can’t really be considered private networks since anyone can get onto these networks and in general (historically) they provide unrestricted connectivity to the rest of the internet in a best-effort, some-networks-are-more-equal-than-others fashion. And this is precisely why the internet has grown and ISPs have succeeded amd thrived – they provide access to a network to anyone allowing them to connect with anyone. As such, Internet access has become as important a utility as power, phone, and water service. Think of the last time you moved – I would bet that internet access was more of a priority than phone service.

Is regulating internet neutrality an oxymoron?

So we know that rules exist for legitimate reasons on private networks, but most such rules cannot apply to the internet due to its decentralized emergent architecture which allows end-to-end communication across an ever shifting maze of networks. Large telecoms who are also in the ISP business would like to change this by charging for different kinds of internet usage. This is largely because the legacy phone network cash cow which they were privleged to make a killing from is going away. The telecom watchdogs have noted this power-play and are attempting to convince government to regulate the “neutrality” of ISP services. In his post: “Network neutrality and the end of end to end,” networking guru Alistair Croll weighs in on the irony presented in regulating the ability of ISPs to regulate their own networks. I think such regulation may also be difficult to enforce, and there may be no need. Alistair’s book on the topic of bandwidth management was subtitled “Deploying QoS in Enterprise Networks” and not “Deploying QoS on The Internet.” Quality of service doesn’t work on the internet, its domain is privately controlled networks allowing control of end-to-end whereas traffic on the internet is simply too uncontrolled and unpredictable.

Well, if we don’t get a predictable quality of service from new application-aware ISP services what do we get? Unfortunately, there will be no improvement to the current internet architecture rather we will simply lose the expectation of end-to-end connectivity. To allow an application to function, the developer might need to secure rights to traverse intervening networks, or the subscriber may need to add the application as a $5 feature on a massive menu of telecom profit enhancing services. Imagine how hard it would be in this brave new world to invent a new application such as the “World Wide Web.” Next to impossible. You would have to negotiate with all the big telcos. So we are facing the threat of supression of innovation in a medium which has inspired some of the most rapid technological innovation ever witnessed. Small wonder so many folks are up in arms! More selfishly I worry about troubleshooting an application issue: how do I know if the appropriate rights and classes of service have been established between point A and point B? Egads! So regulation is proposed in response to a real threat, but is there a need for it?

Don’t worry be happy – the market will take care of everything.

Most practical economists agree that many markets don’t work according to the Adam Smith “invisible guiding hand” set of principles once human nature is taken into account. We are social creatures and market biases exist due to our behavioural ecology. There are certain things we cannot trust to free markets. Government regulation does have a role in certain domains. That said, I don’t believe this is the case for the internet. Barring and probably even in spite of potential wide-scale industry collusion, which is illegal anyhow, I believe the internet will “regulate” itself, as it always has. Regulate is the wrong word. The internet will continue to be defined as an application end-point neutral network. There are too many folks involved with vested interests in neutrality, including many “consumers.” According to Arstechnica: “When Brazil’s biggest telecom pulled the plug on Skype, the outcry in the country was big enough that the decision was soon reversed.”

Ed Felten at Freedom to Tinker has a knack for distilling complicated situations to their essential points. In his very informative post on network neutrality: Discrimination, Congestion, and Cooperation he describes how participants in the internet adhere, whether they realize or not, to a “social contract by which users cooperate with their peers, and software vendors cooperate by writing software that causes users to keep the deal.” I would go as far as to add network operators as important participants in the social contract up until recently. It seems that they are forgetting their role in this, and about the very nature of the internet.

The internet “wants” to be free

So we know the internet is a special kind of network, and therefore internet services are a special kind of network service, very different from corporate network services. Simply put, the secret of its success is the internet wants to be free. I use “want” as an anthropomorphism for “natural inclination” and “free” to indicate the flexibility of potential use. I don’t mean “free” as in “costs nothing” – there is always some kind of investment required to participate in the internet. In using “free” I also don’t mean that any kind of activity is welcome on the internet – there will always be limits to what a free society tolerates. Rather I mean “free” in the same sense as “freedom.” The free software foundation puts it best on the Philosophy of GNU page:

Free ..[X]…” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech” not as in “free beer.”

For the Free Software Foundation, X=software. Feel free to substitute “internet”, “media” (music, books and movies), “communication” or as Lawrence Lessig would have us: “culture“. Lessig’s post tying together Fair Use and Network Neutrality helped make clear to me that we face common issues when overly restricting freedoms after reaping their benefits. The problems we face with copyright law and network neutrality surround the control of information use and communication which leads to the suppression of freedoms critical to the prosperity of a free society.

Strangely we find the United States, which was founded via the embrace of freedoms, being the main driver behind draconian restrictions of freedoms. Under the guise of wanting to maintain a free and prosperous market where there is an incentive for creation of new valuable works, powerful lobby groups are moving to control the market, heightening the barrier of entry and stifling the potential to create new works while pumping up the value of previously existing works.

Any evolutionary system in a variable environment will allow the persistence of structures which can control their own environment, up to a point. This helps avoid being maladapted to environment changes. We humans are a perfect example, achieving unprecendented success thanks to this talent, although the environment looks like it is starting to fight back. The free market philosophy was supposed to favor the entrepreneur who finds a novel solution to new economic conditions. Entrepreneurial spirit and opportunism are supposed to be the engine of capitalism. How could we forget?

Non-neutral networks are like DRM: a failing proposition.

Here’s a scenario: A youthful nation fosters the creation and evolution of capitalist commerical interests which benefit from and thrive upon their founding principles of freedom. They are joined by others who strive to emulate this success. Once enough of the resulting successful corporations are firmly established as rich and powerful multinationals with well funded lobby groups, they are naturally incented to exert controls over the very freedoms that allowed for their success. Rules are changed, and established positions of power protected against market change. Far fetched?
The challenge that the telecom and big media industries (among others) face is that the market environment has transformed radically very recently – technology exists that allows enormous freedom of use of information, copyrighted or not, at miniscule cost. A new distributed network has arisen that threatens the old centralized one (see “The rise of the stupid network“). Ripping audio CDs into MP3 and movies into DivX is incredibly easy. Combine this with a culture of lending books and videos and the market, more and more, is asking that freedom be a standard feature of the information we consume. As Lessig describes in “The People Own Ideas” one of the major changes has been that in a digital world, the act of borrowing and lending intellectual property automatically entails copying of information and existing intellectual property laws have trouble with that reality.

Telcoms want to remove some of the freedoms which were involved in the creation and success of the internet by using network technology in much the same manner that the content producers trying to take away our rights to use books, music and movies using DRM technology (digital rights management). In a world of extremely unavoidable and inexpensive copying is this a viable and stable market solution? These industries need to adapt or go extinct. It is too late for them to artificially control the environment in which they do business, as Lessig points out. There are other ways in which the market can pay for internet services or intellectual property which do not require breaking “internet neutrality” or the proper compensation of creators of intellectual property. None of the entrenched providers want to admit this. Change is hard.

The Internet Charter of Rights.

So do we need an internet charter of rights and freedoms to protect our rights, along the lines of those charters we already embrace? Do we need legislation to protect our internet freedoms?

Again I suspect that internet participants will demand that Telecoms and ISPs deliver what we need – bandwidth to use the applications we please within the bounds of the laws of our societies – or take their business elsewhere. I see us all as investors or partners in the internet, rather than consumers in the traditional sense. The internet is more of a democratic service than a consumer good. If I need more bandwidth by all means give me the choice of paying more to get it. I don’t want to put my ISP out of business by costing them more than what I pay them. But they better not block my VoIP service from being able to connect, and they definitely better not rate limit my bittorrent traffic. Charge me for usage, like my power company. And by the way you media companies out there, this is also how I would like my books, music and movies to be delivered. I’m tired of re-purchasing my favorite albums every time a new music delivery platform comes out.

The market will either take heed or force us to team up and build our own, alternative internet. This is not a utopian dream. It will happen for the same reason why many of us are happy to spend time creating and making content freely available on the internet. Or creating freeware. Or contributing to open source software. Or hacking wireless devices to create mesh networks. Or why we are willing to spend time working around some of the more ridiculous DRM restrictions. This is not the broadcast information consumer market of yesteryear. This is a social market based on participation. For the business folks who have cared to pay attention this enables brand new economically viable business models. The truth remains that it shatters the old ones. People tend to be scared of change, especially anyone who has “got it made,” but change is also natural and inevitable. Which is why we need to adapt our thinking. Old rules might not work in the future that is today.

I suspect that existing charters of rights and freedoms, with some freshening up, combined with the innovation of new technologies and business ideas, and most importantly the adaptation of intellectual property law to new realities are all that we need to rely on for continued internet freedom. My biggest concerns lie with the laws which tend to be out of date and overly influenced by the lobbying of companies rich from the spoils of the old markets.

The value of the internet is that we are all part of it. We are all part of the internet because of its freedoms.

Remove the freedom and you remove the value. Take enough of us out of the equation by blocking communication channels and the internet won’t have or be the utility that it has become. We don’t need regulation, we need more public education, debate and concensus so individuals can vote with their money and their mice. If government at whatever level decides that internet access is important enough to economic health that some taxes should sponsor some baseline of accessibility for those who cannot afford it, I’m all for that. It might cost a little but it will enrich us all to a far greater extent.

One thing is clear, no matter whether our freedom is maintained via regulation or market (r)evolution, we all need to adapt to the superconductivity of information enabled by today and tomorrow’s technologies.

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