In a speech this morning, widely heralded (and criticized) as a call for “network neutrality,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski: “Why has the Internet proved to be such a powerful engine for creativity, innovation, and economic growth? A big part of the answer traces back to one key decision by the Internet’s original architects: to make the Internet an open system.”
Now “open system” doesn’t mean anarchy. The Internet has rules, technical standards codified in the unassuming sounding “Requests for Comment.” As described by the author of RFC 1, Steve Crocker (How the Internet Got Its Rules), the RFCs were designed to help people coordinate activity, to build an interoperable network: “After all, everyone understood there was a practical value in choosing to do the same task in the same way. For example, if we wanted to move a file from one machine to another, and if you were to design the process one way, and I was to design it another, then anyone who wanted to talk to both of us would have to employ two distinct ways of doing the same thing.” By coordinating an open infrastructure, the Net’s architects left room for expansion at the edges.
While critics have been quick to call the statement and the rules it prefigures “government regulation,” Chairman Genachowski says “this is not about government regulation of the Internet. It’s about fair rules of the road,” (a phrase picked up by Commissioners Copps and Clyburn in their supporting statements). Like rules of the road, basic non-discrimination and transparency principles promote interoperability: As every driver and car manufacturer knows what to expect of the highways, every Internet user and application-developer should know what he or she can assume as substrate.
Yes, road rules constrain some innovation at the core — you can’t build a public road with braid-like traffic patterns where cars freely weave in and out in both directions, or with yellow stop signs and green “yield,” but you can still improve the pavement or road reflectors. The added predictability of a standard interface enables other more significant innovation at the edges — the Porsche, Prius, Smart, and Tesla can all drive on the same standard highway.
Most importantly, Chairman Genachowski shows he understands the option value of network openness — leaving room for the unexpected:
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, the Internet is a “blank canvas” — allowing anyone to contribute and to innovate without permission.
As the Net’s core became more fixed since the days of RFC 1, it has enabled attachment of various devices and formats, some of which would become standards in their own right (HTTP, HTML) others of which would never really take off (VRML 3D modeling). We can’t pick winners, but we can build a field for contests worth winning.
Working through the details of the proposed FCC rules will be critical, and difficult, but the principles Genachowski offers for implementation provide a solid foundation.