Tuesday Oct 20, 2009

Perfectly Closed

To my peers in the industry, I ask you to carefully think through your positions on the new set of “open internet” rules the FCC is proposing.  The rules would prevent Internet companies from selectively blocking or slowing certain Web content and would require providers to disclose how they manage their networks in an effort to promote transparency and true "openness." 

The FCC has said the rules will allow ISPs to manage their networks to ensure smooth performance during peak traffic times. Internet service providers are concerned that the rules would apply only to them and not other Web companies.  Manufacturers are worried that the rules would hamper their ability to find new ways to manage Internet traffic

Certainly, I have a  visceral reaction to most attempts to impose policies on markets, especially around the internet which has seemed to prosper well on its own set of organic rules, and with blessedly little regulation. The capital cycles and innovation rates are enormous; and they are, of course, related to the prospect of making money through market differentiation.

But I don’t see the proposed rules as a set of regulations, any more than a constitution is.  

They are, in my view, a codification of a set of fundamental principles around openness. A central question is, given we have done this well and gone this far, why do we need them now? I have a few answers to this, but mostly it’s because along with our technology advances in delivering networking and network services, we’ve also improved the ability to unilaterally, and thus dangerously, control it.

In many cases, nearly perfect unilateral control. Cryptography, in particular, lets us get really good at controlling content and devices. We can, if we choose, dictate the applications that can and can’t run on a device (a phone, say). We can also, instantly and en masse, revoke the content residing in the network (on an ebook, say). And we will certainly get better and better at extending these controls on a packet-by-packet basis, deciding which packet gets to go where, and perhaps re-written in the process. Perfect interlock is possible between devices, networks and services.

This certainly has not been the principles on how so much collective innovation has taken place on, and under, the internet. The vibrancy of where we are today is because we have been free from unilateral control points. With the web, in particular, anyone can challenge an incumbent with their idea of a new service by simply creating and publishing it, without getting any prior permission --- apps review, network service connections, or otherwise. Cloud computing lowers the barriers even further. But it is very easy to imagine that any of new control points by an single company or entity could be become a land mine to innovation.

Why new rules? We should actively and collectively set our principles around openness. It’s in our mutual self-interest to codify them.  I say “mutual self-interest” for a bunch of reasons. At an abstract level, the internet is one big value-add network effect. Wherever you are along the food chain, you benefit from the value of the internet to society always increasing. Certainly for new web services, keeping the barriers as low as possible maximizes their creation. Similarly, getting more bandwidth, reliably and cheaply, to customers will increase the ability to consume these new services. And new devices benefit from more ubiquitous broadband and tons of services. We all have to keep this open cycle open.

At a purely pragmatic level, the shoe can very quickly go onto another foot. You might see open principles as somehow restrictive to your particular business decisions today, but I assure you that tomorrow a new perfect control point somewhere else will have you wanting to have some rules by which we all play.

And finally, there is enormous mutual self-interest in getting out in front on these principles. The FCC has promised that the analysis will be data-driven and fact-based.  Let’s have the conversation, figure them out collectively, and work to get the right policies in place. Maybe what are  being proposed aren’t exactly right, but to me a blanket response of don’t need any rules will come back and haunt us all. Unilateral control is getting really good, and quickly.

So to my peers, let’s hang together on this.  Let's be progressive and write down the principles we should continue to shape the network around.

Or we shall most assuredly hang separately.

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Gregp

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