Why Internet governance should be left to the engineers

September 3, 2014

If governments really care about the Internet, they should stay out of the engineers’ way. (Euan Rocha/Reuters)

As the Internet and the disruptive innovations it spawns are becoming economically, politically, and culturally vital for the world’s three billion users (and counting), there’s been a worrisome though unsurprising outburst of initiatives across governments to figure out ways to control it, suppress it, or otherwise extract value from it.

This week, I am in Istanbul at the U.N.’s Internet Governance Forum, an ongoing “policy dialogue” that has met regularly since 2006 to discuss global issues of Internet access and use. This year’s event has over 2,500 attendees.

Local politics are unavoidable, of course.  The 2014 IGF has been marred by controversies over host country Turkey’s continuing repression of online activists.  And the overheated debate over net neutrality in the United States has likewise infected most discussions at the conference.

But whether the topic is net neutrality, Internet access in developing nations, human rights, free speech, privacy or government surveillance, the real issue in digital policy boils down to one simple question:  who is best-suited to regulate the unique architecture of the open Internet?

Until now, the answer has almost exclusively been the engineers who built and maintain it.  To the credit of many (though not all) national governments, regulation of the network has largely been left to democratic “multistakeholder” processes and organizations, notably the Internet Society, which tirelessly coordinates enhancements to the Internet’s technical standards.

In the United States, a “first do no harm” approach has been the official and bipartisan policy of the country since the emergence of the commercial Internet in the mid-1990’s.  And whatever measure of success you prefer, the results of that foresight speak for themselves.

But a wide range of groups with overlapping and sometimes hidden agendas are organizing to break that model, often with the best of intentions — or so they say.

These include the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union, the European Union, national governments democratic and otherwise, regulatory agencies limping into the 21st century from the telephone (or even telegraph) era, and even state and local governments.

Within and outside each are activists fanning the flames of anxiety among all stakeholders over concerns that the most disruptive technologies in the past century are under siege from forces determined to undermine them.

The Internet, we hear in every session, is “insecure,” open to exploitation by spies, criminals, and self-serving corporations. The engineered openness we celebrate is both the source of its greatest value and its greatest risk.

But given the engineers’ enviable track record, I trust them to maintain that delicate balance far more than I do traditional governments and unelected regulators.  For starters, the engineers work in the open, quickly and efficiently, with the best ideas — rather than the most politically expedient — rising to the top.

The engineering-driven multistakeholder process is by no means perfect.  Still, several days’ worth of sessions focused just on net neutrality highlight the limitations of the alternative — letting governments, activists, and academics lead the conversation.

By the end, the only consensus reached was that nothing was clear, including what is even meant by the term.

For some, net neutrality is an assurance that regulators will keep access providers from blocking or favoring content based on anti-competitive interests.  But beyond that entirely reasonable principle, debate rages on the status of a wide range of established network management technologies that maximize the efficiency of traffic flow, and in particular high-bandwidth applications including video and voice.

Arguments in favor of or against several non-neutral practices — content delivery networks, co-located servers, and transit, for example — inevitably reveal themselves as thinly-veiled efforts to redirect regulators for strategic advantage over suppliers or competitors.  That, of course, is business as usual in dealing with traditional government — another powerful reason to be skeptical of their value over the engineers.

And in countries with more repressive governments, net neutrality is aimed at protecting users from their elected representatives, who are far more likely to be the source of blocks, bans, or interference with user content.

There was sometimes a disturbingly doctrinaire, almost colonial, tone to the debate.  Under the banner of net neutrality, governments have begun to prohibit innovative programs including so-called “zero-rated” services, where social media companies including Facebook and Twitter pay the mobile data charges for their users who are otherwise unable to afford it.

At a panel on the topic Wednesday, U.S. and European advocates told representatives of developing nations that the principle of neutrality was more important than subsidized access for their poorest citizens.  Not surprisingly, the representatives disagreed.

And for many stakeholders, net neutrality extends across the Internet, applying equally to content companies and other service providers.  A recent report from the French government’s Digital Council, for example, worries much more about the danger of dominant platform providers, including Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter, than about network management by ISPs.

For these hyper-successful startups, the report concludes, “the low level of initial investment required has made it possible to quickly build up dominant platforms on user functions” including search and social media.  “As long as they continue to go unchallenged by either the political community or by other industry players,” the authors warn, “their powerful position will be maintained.”

My co-author Paul Nunes and I also noted the phenomenon of “winner take all” outcomes in markets subject to constant innovation, or what we call “Big Bang Disruption.”  But our research suggests such dominance is always — and usually quickly — overcome, not by regulators or new competitors so much as the next wave of disruptive technologies.

But here too it is worth noting how below the surface such an encompassing view of net neutrality is often advanced by countries without significant Internet businesses against those who do — it’s an old-fashioned trade war, in other words.

No surprise, then, that the net neutrality sessions at IGF generated no accord.  Indeed, those of us who urged staying the course of engineering-driven governance were quickly dismissed as being “opposed” to net neutrality if not the core values of the Internet itself.  Even then, the interventionists quickly fell out among themselves.

Those now calling on the FCC to vastly increase its role in managing the Internet ecosystem, including network management, should reflect soberly on that global discord.

Many were in attendance in Istanbul.  Abroad, they wisely call for caution in international efforts to overthrow the multistakeholder model that has been the Internet’s greatest policy innovation.  Once they overcome the jet lag, perhaps they’ll see the danger of their very different approach at home.

Government by slogan, in any case, is a bad idea.  But a poisonous political environment in Washington has brought us dangerously close to abandoning bipartisan wisdom that has generated billions of dollars of new value in Internet start-ups seen nowhere else in the world, the investment by private companies of over a trillion dollars in network infrastructure, and growing competition to deliver gigabit speeds to communities around the country.

Moore’s Law and traditional law run at vastly different clock speeds.  Disruptive innovation cannot thrive at the appropriately deliberate pace of traditional governments, however well-intentioned (or not).  At best, governments can empower engineers, entrepreneurs, and advocates to work out the rules of the road.  But they cannot dictate the rulebooks, or safely enforce them.

At least not without serious danger of collateral damage far worse than the problems they hope to solve.

Larry Downes is co-author with Paul Nunes of “Big Bang Disruption:  Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio 2014). He is a Project Director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.

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