Saturday, July 7, 2007

Internet Policy and You

I was reading this post from Susan Crawford's blog, and I thought I would pass along this brief explanation of why it is important to keep the business of carrying network packets separate from the business of providing services using those packets. If what I just said didn't make any sense, but you have an interest in the internet, do yourself a favor and read that explanation.

I realize there are many other worthy and worrisome things in the world, but technology policies happen to be something I watch closely and think are important to our lives. However, I'm also aware that I'm just as misinformed and opinionated as everybody else. So, I try not to indulge in expressing my opinion too often. It seems there is no shortage of people willing to do that without actually being edifying and without moving any discussions forward. Like I said, I try not to be that way myself, but I trust you'll forgive my indulgence...

I've been following the developments in the U.S. internet policies for a while now, and there is clear movement away from the policies and ideas that the internet was built on. Policies that led to an almost literal explosion of services. Policies that freed subscribers of internet services (i.e. you, me, and anybody with an internet connection) to not just choose any service they wanted to use that was available but to also create new services that didn't yet exist.

If you wanted to use Amazon, go for it! If you'd rather use Barnes & Noble, go for it! If you wanted to establish a used book store clearing house like Alibris, pay to connect to the internet, start up your business, and go! If you want to wear your heart on a blog, nobody is stopping you! Publish a webcomic, start a search service, provide an online feed reading service for all those blogs. And that's all just the tip of the iceberg of the possible services and ways to use the internet. I mean, I haven't talked about all the different ways people use to communicate and coordinate with one another using forums, and email, and any number of other things...

Besides being on the internet, what's the one thing all those services and tools have in common? You and I and the other parties involved didn't have to get advance permission from the network service providers (the entities that carry the packets). You pay for your connection, and you go. Regardless of who provides your internet connection, regardless of how you are connected, you can communicate with anybody else on the internet. You can use free services, or you can use paid services. You can communicate whatever you want (within the limits of the protocols and the law, of course). You can do all this, and all the while your service provider stays the hell out of the way.

Contrast that with how other networks work. Do you have a cell phone? What sort of services can you access with your cell phone? Only those that your cell phone service provider is willing to let you have. Do you have a cable television (or equivalent)? What sort of services can you access there? Only those services that your cable television provider is willing to let you have. If you had an idea for a new cell phone service, how would you go about implementing it? Well, first you'd probably have to approach the various cell phone providers and see if any of them are interested. If none of them are, too bad. If you have an idea for a new internet service, pay for your hosting service and go for it!

Additionally think about what several decades of monopoly on radio waves, phone service, and cable companies provided in terms of innovation of services, and compare it against what has happened on the internet since about the mid 90's. That's the difference I'm talking about. Closed networks versus open networks.

Another way to think about it, and I'm pretty sure I got this from Susan Crawford, is that closed networks, like your cell phone provider, are optimized for billing, while the internet was optimized for innovation. That isn't a flippant comment about "greedy corporations". It's simply an observable fact about the different intent of the design of these networks. An observation that raises the question: is it okay if all networks end up closed or, knowing what we know now, should we make an effort to keep at least one network open?

I don't know what will happen in the future. I'm not making any predictions, but if you don't want the internet to turn into just another cable or cell phone service or quietly languish while it is demoted to a second class service by the service providers, you may want to keep an eye on policy developments, not just here in the U.S., but wherever in the world you may be. And I'd recommend that you pay attention not only to your government policies but also to the policies of your service providers. Those are just as important.


P.S. Susan Crawford's blog is a good place to stay abreast of U.S. communications policies as well as international internet policies.

P.P.S. Believe it or not, I tried to limit my comments. I also considered ranting about how policies developed around the limits of technology circa 1920 have hampered innovative developments in the use of the radio spectrum, but that's another topic. However, it is related to internet policy. So, I'll refer you to this Wired article about the upcoming auction of the UHF spectrum. The part of the spectrum that is being vacated by TV broadcasters (a horrible use of spectrum in my opinion) as they move to so-called digital broadcasting. Actually, the first paragraph of that article brings up a good point about the devices we use to connect to networks that I didn't even touch on.

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