There’s an important link between my app store and network management posts from last week: they’re both examples of filtering processes that don’t scale. There’s a fundamental difference between an recommendation process, in which a variety of firms offer competing recommendations to users, and a filtering process in which a single firm unilaterally prevents users from accessing certain content or applications. There’s a sense in which these are both exercises of “editorial discretion,” but as the set of items being reviewed increases, they behave in a divergent fashion. Recommendation processes scale gracefully, because there’s room for lots of competing recommendations, with each supplementing the failures of the others. One firm’s failure to include a particular item on its list doesn’t preclude others from correcting the oversight. The system as a whole works better than any one of the participating firms.
In contrast, top-down filtering scales poorly because a single firm has to make a correct decision about every item. No single firm can possibly understand every item in a complex technological ecosystem, and the constraints of bureaucratic management make it unlikely that they’ll even do an especially good job of it. So top-down filtering will lead to mistakes, and those mistakes will directly harm users, who can’t easily choose a different filter.
Indeed, I suspect that an ISP’s effort to behave as an “editorial filter” in a significant way would fail so swiftly and spectacularly that the experiment wouldn’t be repeated. The app store fiasco hasn’t sunk the iPhone because the iPhone is still a relatively simple platform, and because iPhone users have never known an alternative. The Internet is a vastly more complex ecosystem, and its users are used to being able to run the applications of their choice. If, for example, Verizon or Comcast tried to create a whitelist of approved applications and block the rest, they’d make so many mistakes that a large fraction of their customers would revolt.
Broadband ISPs can’t control content or applications on the Internet any more than Microsoft could impose an “app store”-style review process on Windows developers: the ecosystem has become far too complex for any one firm to control, and trying to exert that kind of control would destroy most of the value embedded in the platform. This isn’t to say that they won’t engage in small-scale filtering (like the Comcast/BitTorrent incident), but efforts at more comprehensive censorship aren’t likely to work very well.