top ten things lawyers should know about the Internet: #9

June 27th, 2008 by kc

[Jump to a Top Ten item: #1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6 #7 #8 #9 #10]

#9: The news is not all bad: there is a reason everyone wants to be connected to all the world’s knowledge — as well as each other — besides its status as the most powerful complex system ever created by man. The Internet’s practical promise for individual freedom, democratic engagement, and economic empowerment, is also unparalleled. This promise is sufficient inspiration for an open, technically literate conversation about how to invest in technologies and policies to support articulated social objectives.

  1. David Clark’s conclusion that the federally funded network research community’s “real accomplishment was not in computing but in connecting people” captures a century of thought. Although the openness of the architecture is the root of its many vulnerabilities, it was also the aspect that allowed enough self-organizing momentum to grow the network as fast as it did. The results are noisy, the journey messy, the future uncertain, the most pessimistic scenarios ominous. But the positive effects are also incalculable, particularly the potential for an unprecedented increase in individual freedom, the often deemphasized, yet primary, social objective of both democracy and markets.
  2. The p2p file-sharing phenomenon, and more recently the user-generated video sharing phenomenon, are finally shedding some light on the inconvenient truth: we have not yet demonstrated a sustainable competitive model for moving raw bits around. Not that we excel at competitive models for moving things around over large distances to almost anywhere. Witness railroads, water, electricty, highways, postal service, telephony. Soon, airlines. The economics clearly need some sunlight. And the p2p debate will require some.
  3. As with most infrastructure issues, the U.S. federal government is slow to respond regarding a national broadband strategy. But the USG is investing resources and regulatory attention to help foster global Internet growth, including: encouraging IPv6 deployment to mitigate the coming address space crunch; improving the security of the naming system with community-developed standards for authenticated DNS responses; and, in partnership with industry and academia, developing a roadmap for federal research and development in cybersecurity and information assurance. (Yes, the emphasis is on security and sustainability issues, but that’s where federal investment is today.)
  4. With infrastructure, progressive movement tends to begin at the state and local levels as governments experiment with alternative ownership models for provisioning Internet infrastructure via public-private partnerships. Local experimentation is critical, and eye-opening: after a decade of pay-per-minute hotspots, airports are realizing that free (as in beer) wifi access appeals to visitors and residents.
  5. The OECD now considers the Internet relevant to its mission, and is issuing balanced recommendations based on its best available data, which they forcefully admit is problematic. In their recent ministerial meeting on the future of the Internet, they committed to “improving statistical indicators to measure access and use of the order to provide more reliable data and analysis.” Only in the U.S. do policymakers believe that OECD rankings arelying.
  6. There are many educated people speaking out on the topic of informing policy based on what we know, and reserving judgment elsewhere. (Recommended thinkers.) There are evolutionary lessons and insights to glean from other networked fields facing similar problems, e.g., semantic web in big pharma and efficient routing as well as lessons to draw from ideas we have tried that have not worked yet, such as public catalogs or open commerce in network data. There’s plenty of work to do, but there’s no shortage of qualified people.
  7. Authors and journalists have captured and interpreted history, and academic researchers have done their share of capturing and interpreting the history of communications and its implications for the Internet. There is detailed understanding of the history of many aspects of the Internet, including how pieces of the co-evolving complex systems of technology, economics, and regulation fit together.
  8. Relatively few government-funded researchers, led by U.S. federal agency ARPA, supported by strong regulatory protection for innovation built the Internet in an amazingly short time relative to the history of communications. Within twenty years the new ecosystem fatally threatened the old. The obvious response by the incumbent carriers was to manipulate the regulatory architecture away from the line-sharing that made innovations such as the Internet possible. No surprise there, these same carriers fought innovation last century too, including the Internet. Regulating protection of innovation at the edge is neither new nor somehow obviated by the technological developments of the Internet. On the contrary, the technological ability to innovate at the edge of the Internet is easy to remove in the middle by a network owner. So as with the rest of history of telecom, and as with other social goals such as universal access, it will largely be a matter of pointing legislatures to results achieved from other policies.
  9. But, important as these problems are, they were not the main point. The main point of the book is to see these human constructions as systems, not as collections of individuals or representatives of ideologies. From our opening accident with the coffeepot and job interview through the exotics of space, weapons, and microbiology, the theme has been that it is the way the parts fit together, interact, that is important. The dangerous accidents liein the system, not in the components. The nature of the transformation process eludes the capacities of any human system we can tolerate in the case of nuclear power and weapons; the air transport system works well — diverse interests and technological changes support one another; we may worry much about the DNA system with its unregulated reward structure, less about chemical plants; and though the processes are less difficult and dangerous in mining and marine transport, we find the system of each is an unfortunate concatenation of diverse interests at cross-purposes. These systems are human constructions, whether designed by engineers and corporate presidents, or the result of unplanned, unwitting, crescive, slowly evolving human attempts to cope. Either way they are very resistant to change. Private privileges and profits make the planned constructions resistant to change; layers upon layers of accommodations and bargains that go by the name of tradition make the unplanned ones unyielding. But they are human constructions, and humans can destruct them or reconstruct them. The catastrophes send us warning signals. This book has attempted to decode these signals: abandon this, it is beyond your capabilities; redesign this, regardless of short-run costs; regulate this, regardless of the imperfections of regulation. But like the operators of TMI (three-mile island) who could not conceive of the worst — and thus could not see the disasters facting them — we have misread these signals too often, reinterpreting them to fit our preconceptions. Better training alone will not solve the problem, or promise that it won’t happen again. Worse yet, we may accept the preconception that military superiority and private profits are worth the risks. This book’s decoding asserts that the problems are not with individual motives, individual errors, or even political idologies. The signals come from systems, technological, and economic. They are systems that elites have constructed, and thus can be changed or abandoned.
    Normal Accidents, Charles Perrow, 1999

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