Last week, Larry Lessig gave a talk at an FCC event at Stanford that makes a good jumping-off point for my ongoing series on network neutrality. In my previous installment, I made the point that both sides of the network neutrality debate have a tendency to over-estimate the ability of network owners to exert control over how their networks are used. Lessig certainly makes this assumption. He claims that "owners have the power to change [the Internet's architecture], using it as a tool, not to facilitate competition but to weaken competition." Do they? He doesn't spend any time explaining how networks would do this, or what kind of architectural changes he has in mind. But he does give an example that I think is quite illuminating, although not quite in the way he had in mind.
Lessig imagines a world of proprietary power outlets, in which the electricity grid determines the make and model of an appliance before deciding whether to supply it with power. So your power company might charge you one price for a Sony TV, another price for a Hitachi TV, and it might refuse to work at all with an RCA TV. Lessig is certainly right that that would be a bad way for the electricity grid to work, and it would certainly be a headache for everybody if things had been set up that way from the beginning. But the really interesting question is what a power company would have to do if it wanted to switch an existing electricity grid over to a discriminatory model. Because the AT&Ts and Comcasts of the world wouldn't be starting from scratch; they'd be changing an existing, open network.
Our hypothetical power company would need to develop some kind of handshaking protocol, so an appliance could prove to the grid that it was manufactured by "approved" manufacturers. This would require an elaborate and expensive transition process during which appliance makers re-designed their entire product lines to comply with the new standard. The handshaking protocol would have to be complicated enough that unapproved manufacturers couldn't fake it. And once the new appliances had hit the market, consumers would have to throw out all of their existing appliances and get new ones. It wouldn't be possible to allow old appliances to keep working, because in that case non-approved manufacturers could just camouflage their appliances to appear to the grid like "legacy" appliances. A transition to a proprietary electricity grid would, in short, be a multi-billion dollar effort that would require the close cooperation of the world's major appliance manufacturers, would take many years, and would probably still cause a ton of problems for customers when they discover they can no longer use older equipment.
Turning to the technology world, we don't actually have to speculate about what a high-tech architectural transition looks like. I've written before about the uphill struggle to get people to switch from IPv4 to IPv6. Nobody disputes that IPv6 has a lot of nice features that IPv4 doesn't. But the sheer amount of work needed to switch the world's networks over to the new architecture has so far proven an insurmountable barrier. The same was true of Intel's failed transition from x86 to Itanium; plenty of people liked the new architecture, they just weren't willing to spend the money required to re-develop all their software to run on it. Even successful platform transitions, such as Apple's shift from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, tend to be long, messy processes that require close cooperation between the platform owner and key developers.
A network owner wanting to change the Internet's architecture would have to go through a similar process, but it would have to do it largely without the help of application developers. There are thousands of applications and millions of websites that are built on open Internet standards. A change in the Internet's architecture would require changing those applications and websites to conform to the new requirements. This could easily involve billions of dollars of tedious work. And the companies that would have to do the bulk of the workâ€”firms like Google, Microsoft, and Appleâ€”would have no interest in participating in such a project. To the contrary, most of them are on record as supporters of network neutrality. It's just not conceivable that AT&T, Comcast, or another network owner could just flip a switch and "change the architecture" of the Internet. The Internet has become much larger than any one network owner.
There's certainly plenty to criticize when ISPs block specific protocols. We've certainly given Comcast a hard time for screwing around with BitTorrent. But it's totally misleading to look at such incidents as a change in the architecture of the Internet. Comcast's network still operates on the same open architecture it always had. New applications still work by default unless Comcast specifically configures its firewall to block them. The Internet's open architecture doesn't completely prevent Comcast from interfering with customers' traffic, but because the company doesn't control the software stack, it can't do much more than clumsily block protocols it doesn't like. And after a lot of bad publicity, customer anger, and legal pressure, Comcast appears to be backing away from that strategy too. It looks to me like Lessig is dramatically underestimating how hard it would be for even a major broadband provider to change its network's architecture in any significant way.
Other posts in this series: