Should the Internet be regulated?

If you try to load an MP3 file from a source and the process doesn’t work, you probably sigh and try again. If you try to complete an Internet transaction on your favourite retail site and you’re left wondering whether you really bought something, you’re probably seriously annoyed and might send the company an e-mail. If you try to call 911 and it doesn’t work, you might be dead. Moral: Entertainment is optional, but that which supports life and shopping is mandatory.

Ten years ago, the Internet was a network of academia that most people in the U.S. didn’t know existed. Today, it’s being promoted as a fundamental part of our economy and society. We’ve elevated other technologies to this level before, notably voice telephony and television. Those technologies have more or less willingly submitted to regulation. The majority of the Internet community, however, seems to be insisting the Internet is above regulation.

Most, though not all, Americans are comfortable with the idea that Internet content can’t be censored. We’ve dealt with uncomfortable issues such as pornography by providing content filtering at the client edge, accepting that some uncensored material may fall into children’s hands. Everybody may not like this trade-off, but it’s consistent with trade-offs we’ve made in our other public media. There’s no real problem with Internet content-nothing that justifies fixing.

There is a problem elsewhere, though, because some in the Internet community want to draw the shield against censorship across the boundary between the application and operation of the Internet. At a recent Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) gathering, reported on by Scott Bradner, a majority indicated its unwillingness to support federal regulations on wiretapping and call tracing. The Internet community’s attitude raises questions about its willingness to operate in the public interest.

We’ve recently declared Microsoft Corp. to be an evil empire, a monopoly. In essence, we fear the power of a few corporate bigwigs to dictate to the rest of us. We wouldn’t accept Microsoft’s assertion that it’s above the law. How about the IETF, then, or the Internet community? Perhaps their arguments against regulation are more moralistic. But doesn’t their “we know what’s best for the rest of you” attitude sound just like Microsoft’s arguments? Is the manipulation of the many by the few evil because it’s done by a corporation or because it’s done at all? Antitrust laws are laws, just like wiretapping and call tracing laws, and are just like the telecom regulations on universal service subsidies that the Internet community also doesn’t want to pay.

Does this mean we should forcibly regulate the Internet? Maybe not. As it happens, there may be a free-market solution to the problem, one that will create a balance between the goals of the Internet community and the goals of the society and economy the Internet benefits and receives benefits from.

What is the Internet? It’s not a collection of routers or fibre links; it’s a collection of Web pages and sites. The application of the Internet is above the technology. To secure access to Microsoft’s site, we use something we call the Internet, but that site is just a URL, and any technology that could connect our browser to the location that URL represents would support our individual needs. In fact, a hundred different public IP networks could be stacked like coins all over the world, with each network touching our major access points of presence. At these POPs, any set of criteria meaningful to the Internet user could be applied to decide on which of the “Internets” traffic was to be carried.

Facility-based carriers have long accepted the regulations necessary to establish societal control of what has become a crucial social resource-telephony. If the Internet community refuses to accept regulation, then the established carriers will simply stack a new set of Internet “coins” on the current structure, offer a responsive and responsible alternative to the Internet we know today, and let the public decide.

Think about it, IETF.

(Nolle is president of CIMI Corp., a technology assessment firm in Voorhees, New Jersey. He can be reached at +1-856-753-0004 or [email protected].)

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