Think about the Net’s future, not its present

Earlier this year, amidst much pomp and circumstance, Harvard University installed Drew Gilpin Faust as the 28th president in its 370-plus-year history.

As is traditional in such events, the new president gave a talk marking the occasion, discussing the past, present and future of the university and its place in the cosmos. In her wide-ranging and inspirational talk, Faust made mention of the current fixation in Washington on quantifying the value of higher education in the United States. What she said got me thinking about the futility of quantifying the value of the Internet by measuring its impact on yesterday’s business models.

President Faust lamented the “torrent of demands for greater ‘accountability’ from colleges and universities” and the focus on trying to “assess the ‘value added’ of years in college.” She went on to say “The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future, not simply or even primarily to the present. A university is not about results in the next quarter; it is not even about who a student has become by graduation. It is about learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes the future. A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must — that even ought to — conflict with a public’s immediate concerns or demands. Universities make commitments to the timeless, and these investments have yields we cannot predict and often cannot measure.”

The past of the Internet may be short relative to Harvard’s but it is important in regards to understanding the Internet of today. The founding principle of Internet technologies and Internet service was that Internet service was all about moving bits rather than supporting specific applications. This was articulated in a 1984 paper titled “End-To-End Arguments in System Design.”

This principle underlies the ongoing debate over “network neutrality,” but even one of the authors of the 1984 paper says that it’s not a simple picture.

Today there is a lot of pressure for the ‘Net to do more (or in some cases, less) for particular applications or service providers, i.e., be redesigned to understand who or what is communicating and biasing transport based on understanding. Examples of this pressure abound, from ISPs threatening to degrade service to companies that do not pay them extra to the recording industry getting Congress to pass laws to require ISPs to become their enforcement arm.

This pressure mostly comes from people who are trying to hold the Internet accountable to the present, and in particular, accountable to the people who want to preserve the business models of the past and present into the future.

The pressure also comes from governments and others that wish to control what Internet users think and do.

These pressures focus on today. We have the Internet that we have today because the Internet of yesterday did not focus on the today of yesterday. Instead, Internet technology developers and ISPs focused on flexibility, thus enabling whatever future was coming. Making the Internet primarily accountable to today’s interests risks the flexibility that enables a future we cannot now know and risks “yields we cannot predict and often cannot measure.”

Disclaimer: President Faust was speaking about the role of universities. I applied what she said to the Internet, about which neither she nor the university has expressed a formal opinion.

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