Governing the Net

I got a lot of great feedback on my recent proposal to create an International Association of Networking Service Providers. Several folks requested an elaboration on the problems I’d briefly mentioned. Others wondered why I didn’t feel the ITU or other organizations were up to the job. Finally, folks wondered why the “invisible hand” of the free market wouldn’t serve to sort out everything in the long run.

All are great questions. Let’s start with the first: Over the past several months, I’ve highlighted a number of unsolved policy issues.

For example, under what circumstances is it acceptable for carriers to censor content on their networks? The Recording Industry Association of America, for example, would love to make it illegal for a carrier to knowingly transport copyrighted material. But do we want carriers inspecting content at that level of detail?

Yet most agree that network-based security services are desirable — meaning carriers must determine which content represents spam, malware and distributed denial-of-service attacks. So perhaps the answer is “yes” — under certain conditions.

Finally, as noted earlier, several carriers have opted to filter VOIP traffic (other than their own) from their networks. Under what circumstances (if any) is that acceptable?

These questions are hardly hypothetical: EBay agreed to pay as much as US$4 billion to acquire Skype, but China Telecom blocks Skype from its network for competitive reasons (see, DocFinder: 9027). Let’s hope eBay wasn’t planning to expand its audio auction services to China soon!

There’s also the question of how carriers will respect each others’ QoS designations. Right now, carriers’ interconnect agreements are a patchwork quilt; there are no standardized terms and conditions for, say, MCI to carry AT&T’s “top priority” traffic. More critically, there’s no standardized marketplace, without which the free market’s “invisible hand” can’t operate.

Which brings me to the next point. The free market can’t work in a vacuum. Specifically, any market requires a framework for setting and negotiating prices, unambiguous rules about how entities can solicit and receive bids, and a policing mechanism to minimize fraud. That’s what the National Association of Securities Dealers provides for financial services, and what I’m thinking the IANSP could do for service providers – in addition to hammering out “rules of engagement” that would include generally accepted policies on issues such as traffic censorship.

Finally, there’s the question of what’s wrong with the existing bodies. The simple answer is there’s no body that exclusively focuses on Internet policy and operational issues. Various organizations ranging from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to the IETF to the FCC address some of these issues, but each does so under the umbrella of a larger, more general mandate. That’s particularly true for the ITU, which I’ve been following for the past 20 years, and which has the broad mandate of “fostering and coordinating telecommunications initiatives.”

Folks may be wondering where the impetus for such a body is likely to come from. If we haven’t done it before, why bother now? That’s for an upcoming column, but here’s a hint: Who’s got the greatest vested interest in effectively solving these problems?

Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

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