Julius Genachowski and the Bottom-Up Internet


I liked FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s Monday speech at the Brookings Institution. I’ve argued before that network neutrality regulations are a bad idea, and the speech didn’t change my mind. I share the concerns of my colleagues Julian Sanchez and Jim Harper. But those disagreements aside, I think he did a fine job of articulating what’s great and worth preserving about the open Internet:

Historian John Naughton describes the Internet as an attempt to answer the following question: How do you design a network that is “future proof”–that can support the applications that today’s inventors have not yet dreamed of? The solution was to devise a network of networks that would not be biased in favor of any particular application. The Internet’s creators didn’t want the network architecture–or any single entity–to pick winners and losers. Because it might pick the wrong ones. Instead, the Internet’s open architecture pushes decision-making and intelligence to the edge of the network–to end users, to the cloud, to businesses of every size and in every sector of the economy, to creators and speakers across the country and around the globe. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee [nb: no relation to the host of this blog], the Internet is a “blank canvas”–allowing anyone to contribute and to innovate without permission.

This strikes me as an accurate and important observation about why the Internet has been so successful. And if readers will forgive me for my solipsism, I think there’s a close relationship between this argument and the central theme of this blog: “allowing anyone to contribute and to innovate without permission” is an essential property of most bottom-up systems, including those I’ve examined here on the blog. Wikipedia, for example, is the encyclopedia anyone can edit. Free software is available for modification and redistribution by anyone. Disruptive innovation in the news business is lowering barriers to entry and allowing new firms to enter markets formerly dominated by incumbents.

I particularly liked this passage, in which he zoomed in on one of the key characteristics of bottom-up systems:

[An end to network neutrality] would deny the benefits of predictable rules of the road to all players in the Internet ecosystem. And it would be a dangerous retreat from the core principle of openness–the freedom to innovate without permission–that has been a hallmark of the Internet since its inception, and has made it so stunningly successful as a platform for innovation, opportunity, and prosperity.

2667037981_081ea2bd2aThis is a point some network neutrality critics fail to appreciate. The importance of “predictable rules of the road” can be best understood by contrasting it with what happens when people are left at the mercy of a top-down decision-maker. In his famous wireless Carterfone paper, Tim Wu quotes one engineer who described developing for proprietary cell phone platforms as “a tarpit of misery, pain and destruction.” The problem was that each of the four national carriers has its own distinct, Byzantine bureaucracy for deciding which applications will be allowed on its network. Getting the approval of all four was a major headache. And of course, in the two years since Wu’s paper came out, Apple has entered the cell phone market and behaved basically the same way. The Cuptertino firm blocked one iPhone application because it included a link to a parody of a famous scene from the movie Downfall. In another case it blocked an application on the grounds that it “ridicules public figures.” More recently, it gave Google the runaround about exactly what was wrong with its Google Voice application. The bottom line is an incredibly long and frustrating process, in which would-be developers are asked to sink large quantities of time and effort into products that may be rejected by Apple for any reason or no reason at all.

Bottom-up systems are different. In the free software world, for example, licenses like the GPL guarantee freedom to use and modify software in perpetuity, without permission from anyone. As I pointed out last week the GPL will likely shield MySQL users from the worst consequences if Oracle decides it’s not interested in supporting the product. Likewise, blogging software removes the layers of bureaucracy that once separated a writer from his audience, allowing readers to enjoy the fresh, unfiltered output of their favorite writers.

The same principle applies to the open Internet. I don’t have to negotiate separately for access to each of the dozens of different TCP/IP networks in the world. As long as my packets follow the rules, I can join any network on Earth and be reasonably confident they’ll get to their destination. This is not only convenient for me, but it’s a tremendous boon for online entrepreneurs like my non-namesake Tim Berners-Lee, who was able to create the World Wide Web on a shoestring budget because the basic infrastructure had already been created.

Now, I hasten to add that this doesn’t necessarily mean that top-down systems like the iPhone ought to be illegal. I think Apple’s app-review process is obnoxious and counterproductive, but Apple has built an otherwise great product, which I voluntarily purchased, and I think Apple is entitled to run its App Store however it likes. Similarly, I don’t think being pro-network neutrality necessarily implies being pro-network neutrality regulation. There are a number of reasons to think that regulation is unnecessary and likely to backfire. But regardless, I think Genechowski’s underlying thesis is basically right: the Internet has been a resounding success because it’s a decentralized, bottom-up network that “allows anyone to contribute and to innovate without permission.”

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