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Freedom to Connect
Jon Lebkowsky, 3 Apr 06

Day one of David Isenberg's two-day Freedom to Connect conference in DC has ended, and I don't know that we have a handle on "net neutrality" or the larger issue of how we sustain the freedom and openness that has been so much a part of the Internet's architecture and culture throughout its history. Money changes everything, and the Internet is clearly a platform for profitable innovation. As FCC Commissioner Michael Copps pointed out in his opening address, we view the Internet as a place of freedom and openness where the possibilities for innovation are endless, with a dumb network and intelligence at the edges. But we're hearing a warning: new broadband "toll bridges" that would give network providers a cut of content providers' profits could restrict this freedom, openness, and innovation. To ask web sites to pay for the traffic they generate is problematic in two ways: it's the content that makes the broadband service valuable, and the large service providers would be "double dipping" by charging users for access and web-based companies for delivery of content. But it's a model that's possible, and one that service providers like AT&T and Verizon are seriously considering as a way to participate in the success of companies like Google.

We heard several perspectives on "Freedom to Connect" today, many favoring the concept of a neutral "dumb" network with intelligence at the edges, but some critical of the approach. At the end of the day, there was a conversation with former FCC Commissioner Michael Powell, who was perceptive but not especially hopeful. He acknowledged that access to broadband technology is critical to our future, and he said that we should stop talking about tech policy as though it's a utility - in fact, it's everything... education, healthcare, economic development ... everything.

"I'm worried about what's going on," he said, and advised the audience not to put faith in the governmental oversight process. He noted that legislative process doesn't work well when it has a weak understanding of the technology it's focused on, and legislators currently know very little about the Internet.

At the end of the day we understood that we have to work at explaining how the Internet works... and in a more normative sense how it should work. I talked to Phil Wolff about this at the reception: we agreed that we may not be able to describe the best case for future Internet technology, business model, cultural evolution, etc. We do know that we support the goal of a free and open Internet, though, and that understanding can be the foundation for next steps, whatever they may be.

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The ability to charge a toll requires that the toll charger control the only way to get where the traveler wants to go. Is that true here? If the telcoms, regulators and Hollywood create a non-neutral net, there will be technical responses: invitation-only darknets (cf. William Gibson's "Idoru"), meshnets (a modern re-imagining of the old Fido-nets but using overlapping WiFi hotspots), etc.

Posted by: Dana on 4 Apr 06

Sure - an inherently free and open system may interpret constraints that are imposed as damage, and route around them (as we used to say of attempts to impose forms of censorship online). The things you mention are all possible responses, but hopefully we won't have to go there.

The response now should be to help nontechnical people, especially those who are responsible for legislation and regulation, understand the implications of concepts like net neutrality.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 4 Apr 06



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