Toward an accountable Internet

This is some very encouraging news:

Technology Review, which jumps on the Web 3.0 bandwagon in its current issue, reports that Stanford’s Clean Slate Design for the Internet program will be holding a coming out party this Wednesday. The interdisciplinary program seems to take the end of “net neutrality” as a given. Its thrust, in fact, is to make the Internet less Internety (at least as we’ve come to define the term) by redesigning it to be “inherently secure,” by making it possible to “determine the value of a packet … to better allocate the resources of the network, providing high-value traffic with higher bandwidth, more reliability, or lower latency paths,” and by “support[ing] anonymity where prudent, and accountability where necessary.”

The current Internet is chock-full of the vestiges of its heritage as an academic research network, lacking mechanisms for security and authentication and practically inviting abuse. A new Internet, redesigned from the ground up with a realistic assessment of use and abuse, has been needed for fifteen years, so this effort is long overdue. Internet2 could have done this, but didn’t have the technical firepower needed to take public networking to the next level.

Who does? Well, lots of people:

A growing number of researchers are acknowledging that the Internet is fundamentally flawed and needs an overhaul. The Stanford program is just one of a number of initiatives to fix the Internet. (See “The Internet Is Broken.”)

Bob Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Com, believes that there needs to be a way to ensure dedicated bandwidth. “The Internet was designed to get teletype characters echoed across the U.S. in under a half second,” Metcalfe wrote in an e-mail interview. “Soon we’ll have to handle [high-definition] video conversations around the world. The Internet must now allow bandwidth reservation, not just priority, to carry realtime, high-bandwidth communication–video in its many forms including video telephone.”

Metcalfe thinks the Clean Slate project is a great idea but believes that significant challenges lie ahead. “When you’re dealing with infrastructure, in reality, off the Stanford campus … nobody gets a clean slate,” Metcalfe says. “After the brainstorming, the project will have to work on migrations, transitions, compromises, and clever hacks to get the Internet moving gradually toward their ideals.”

And that, my friends, is why I’m against Network Neutrality: I’m an inventor of network protocols (twisted pair Ethernet, wireless LANs and PANs) and my job is find bottlenecks and eliminate them. Needless regulation falls into that category.

This is the kind of work that David D. Clark does (Clark was the principal author of the “End-to-End Arguments in System Design” paper cited by pro-neuts as gospel), and he’s no more sanguine than I am about the Internet’s fragility:

At the same time, the Internet’s shortcomings have resulted in plunging security and a decreased ability to accommodate new technologies. “We are at an inflection point, a revolution point,” Clark now argues. And he delivers a strikingly pessimistic assessment of where the Internet will end up without dramatic intervention. “We might just be at the point where the utility of the Internet stalls — and perhaps turns downward.”

Indeed, for the average user, the Internet these days all too often resembles New York’s Times Square in the 1980s. It was exciting and vibrant, but you made sure to keep your head down, lest you be offered drugs, robbed, or harangued by the insane. Times Square has been cleaned up, but the Internet keeps getting worse, both at the user’s level, and — in the view of Clark and others — deep within its architecture.

Over the years, as Internet applications proliferated — wireless devices, peer-to-peer file-sharing, telephony — companies and network engineers came up with ingenious and expedient patches, plugs, and workarounds. The result is that the originally simple communications technology has become a complex and convoluted affair. For all of the Internet’s wonders, it is also difficult to manage and more fragile with each passing day.

Network neutrality isn’t just a distraction, it’s a positive danger.

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