The Open Internet

Joe Lieberman has a moderately interesting paper on his web site called Growing the Innovation Economy: A New Strategy For A New Prosperity that deals with Internet openness in broad terms:

Ensure that the Internet continues to provide an open platform for innovation: The Internet is different from the phone network and radio and broadcast television in important ways. It is easier for individuals and small organizations to be producers as well as consumers of information. The Internet allows for “many to many” communication as opposed to the “one to many” communication of broadcast television. Innovation can occur at the edge of the network. A student, an independent software developer, or a small high-tech company can come up with an idea for a new application, protocol, or kind of content. If enough people find it useful or worthwhile, this idea can spread like wildfire. Even as the Internet evolves, it important to ensure that it continues to provide an open platform for rapid and decentralized innovation, and for the exchange of ideas.

It seems sensible enough, praising the Internet, entrepreneurship, and openness, and there’s nothing to which I would take exception in any of it.

Unfortunately, the tortuously confused Larry Lessig posted this excerpt to his blog, somehow managing to read it as an endorsement of the dubious “end-to-end” architecture that’s spawned a whole cargo cult of misguided followers:

End to End has gone presidential.

So now I’m getting email from people wanting me to comment on Lessig’s reasoning in his book The Future of Ideas. I haven’t read Lessig’s tome, and I doubt I will unless somebody pays me to review it, but I nonetheless tried to accommodate my correspondent by posting this explanation:

I don?t doubt that Lessig means well, but he frankly doesn?t know what he?s talking about. There is a legitimate, if obscure, fear in some quarters that ISPs may someday censor specific types of content, either in their customer?s interest or in their own economic interests. Porn filters, for example, discriminate based on content, but many customers would consider this a value-added service and it?s not worth getting excited about.

But let?s take it a step further, and suppose that an ISP filters video packets, ostensibly because it wants to control your video experience through its ownership of your cable TV franchise. This would be a bad thing, of course, and I don?t argue otherwise.

But the question we have to ask as network architects is whether there?s any relationship between the Internet?s present or future architecture and this sort of censorship, and the answer to that is clearly no. Video packets are easy to identify on the net because they?re carried by a limited set of protocols and clearly marked; a censor doesn?t care whether the marking is at the IP layer or at the RTP layer or at the UDP layer; they each have a signature, and unless they?re encrypted, they can be found.

Now the question has to be asked as to whether the Internet?s current architecture can hope to compete with cable TV and DBS as a practical alternative for carrying audio and video data, and whether this should be a goal. In the early days of IP, it clearly wasn?t a goal and therefore an architecture was developed that blocked transport layer access to the isochronous services in the data link and medium access control protocols that would make it practical. This architecture now has the effect of keeping the voice and data networks separate, to the advantage of telcos and cablecos who would like to bill you extra for providing voice and video services.

So far from advocating an architecture that frees the consumer from the big media and telephone companies, the end-to-end cargo cultists are promoting the exact thing that keeps them dependent, and they do so out of ignorance of the technical issues in network architecture.

To put it simply, you wouldn?t trust me to explain constitutional law to you, so why would you trust someone with Lessig?s background to explain my business, network architecture, to you?

If you want a robust Internet that’s capable of carrying voice and video as well as data, you have to abandon end-to-end architecture and go with a smarter network layer; this doesn’t mean you have to abandon openness, because openness and end-to-end aren’t related.


3 thoughts on “The Open Internet”

  1. “I don?t doubt that Lessig means well, but he frankly doesn?t know what he?s talking about.”

    well *you* don’t know what he’s talking about, either. try reading his book before throwing assumptions around on what his points are, because from this post, it’s quite clear you don’t know what his points are.

    if you *did* read his book, instead of making wild assumptions of his points gleaned from your blurbs, blog postings, and your own imagination, then you’d also know that he does not claim to ‘explain your business’. far, far, from it. In fact, he goes to great length to make sure the reader is aware of that. He comments on the policies concerning network architecture, and much less on the architecture itself. He is also one to point out the limits of his knowledge…a quality that you should probably learn from.

    If I sound bothered, it’s because I am. Pretty tired of your long-winded rampages on others’ opinions that you are not completely understanding, and on broad topics that you are reducing into bite-size chunks so that you can criticize within your pedantic attitude.

    Your opinions, Richard, are usually quite well thought-out…don’t get me wrong. I’ve learned lots here. But the sweeping arguments with certain people and topics sound hollow and angry, and those are the comments that weaken your stronger and more apt opinions.

  2. As I explained to you in the comments of the previous post on this subject, I’ve read the paper that Searls and Weinberger wrote on this subject, “The World of Ends”, the academic paper “End to end considerations in system design” it’s based on, and I’ve read Lessig’s postings on this subject on his blog. One of these days, I probably will read his book, but until I do please accept the caveat that my criticisms of Lessig are limited to the material that he’s made publicly available without charge.

  3. I could be mistaken, but I recall the professor stating that his previous works would be available under a CC licence along with ‘Free Culture’ when it is released. In which case, you may not have long to wait.


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