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Passing Through - Why The Open Internet Is Worth Saving

Publication Date: 
March 01, 2011
Source: 
Boston Review
Author: 
Evgeny Morozov

In the following article, the Boston Review covers Professor Barbara van Schewick's book titled Internet Architecture and Innovation. Evgeny Morozov reports:

In 2003 Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, published an article on the once-sleepy subject of telecommunications policy. In it, he coined the term “net neutrality” to capture the idea that network operators—the Comcasts and Verizons of the world—should not be in the business of regulating the information traffic that passes through their networks. The term took hold, and the article launched Wu to cyber-rock-star status.

Net neutrality is a simple idea with powerful implications. A neutral net would, for example, prevent cable providers from slowing down their customers’ connections or, worse, banning them from running certain services. That is good for customers, who get equal treatment whether they are streaming movies on Netflix, chatting on Skype, or shopping on Amazon. And it is also good for Netflix, Skype, and other companies that have grown using an Internet infrastructure they do not own and have been able to innovate without worrying about shifting rules of the road.

...

But could the information empire still be a useful concept in the net neutrality debate? Internet Architecture and Innovation, a new book by Stanford Law professor Barbara Van Schewick, shows that it is not. Reading Van Schewick’s book after Wu’s is like walking into a three-hour academic lecture after watching an eighteen-minute TED talk: while the lecture might seem too demanding at the outset, it eventually proves far more rewarding.

Internet Architecture and Innovation explores how changes in a system’s technical architecture and design affect the environment for innovation. Van Schewick argues that modularity—the degree to which a system’s components can be designed, produced, and used independently of one another—is a defining feature of systems. Lego blocks and personal computers score high on modularity; automobiles, less so. In highly modular systems, designers of a particular module can treat all other modules as black boxes; the design of their own module is independent of how other modules are designed or connected. In general, high modularity is good for innovation, as it provides designers with flexibility while also narrowing their focus to a single problem.

...

Van Schewick argues that the pioneers of the Internet recognized the network’s revolutionary potential, so instead of optimizing for performance or cost at such an early stage, they decided to maximize long-term evolvability. And that meant keeping the network core as simple and unspecialized as possible.

It is possible that the trade-off made by computer scientists in the 1980s may no longer reflect the needs of today. “If we believe that all important applications have been realized,” Van Schewick writes, advocating on behalf of the devil, “there is no need to incur the costs of keeping the Internet open for new applications.” But given that there was no Kindle, iPad, or Twitter just five years ago, that belief is a foolish one. As Van Schewick puts it, “Leaving the evolution of the network to network providers will significantly reduce the Internet’s value to society.” In other words, a non-discriminatory—neutral—Internet is in all our interests.

Most provocatively, Van Schewick argues that even the presence of competition may not succeed in thwarting discriminatory practices. And here is where she undermines Wu’s claims about information empires.