May 19, 2004

Techies wanna do policy

I'm sure we have all heard a techie or standards body tell legislatures, courts, and business groups to keep their mits off of the internet; that such groups are "clueless" and that they will damage some noumenon or other indistinct, but critical, principle of the internet.  Consider, for example, the condemnation of competing DNS roots by ICANN and the IAB.

What makes today so interesting is that two well respected techies have stepped forth and made strong social/economic/business policy statements.

Now it isn't that we techies are not capable of making good social policy statements or that we don't have a right to do so.  Rather the point is that such comments ought not to be given inordinate weight based on a presumption that those who are good at technical matters automatically are experts in economic, business, legal, or social matters.

Let's look first at the Tim Berners-Lee's document New Top Level Domains Considered Harmful

That document argues that new top level domain, particularly .mobi, would hurt the internet.  The logic of the document is essentially this: New top level domains would bring change and change causes discomfort, therefore change must be prevented.

And then let's look at Paul Vixie's note to the IETF today in which he asserted a legally actionable right to block ISP's from establishing a root server on a locally routed instance of address  In essence he is asserting a kind of new legally cognizable proprietary interest over a common, freely offered, service.

Both Berners-Lee and and Vixie have contributed mightily to the internet; they have deservedly accumulated enormous techno-karma.

But no matter how many karma points they may have, they are repeating the behavior that turned the innovative telephone companies of the early 20th century into the stodgy telcos that fought competition and innovation at every turn from the early 1900's up through the 1970's.

I am old enough to remember the days when we in the US rented our telephones from "The Phone Company".  Those were the decades when the biggest new advance from "The Phone Company" seemed to be the Princess Phone and when long distance calls were expensive and often involved an operator.

And there were cases, such as the Hush-A-Phone case, in which The Phone Company fought tooth and nail against even the most benign of innovations.  And it wasn't just the lawyers and marketeers who were behind these anti-innovative efforts; there were legions of engineers who swore up and down on stacks of bibles that things like the Hush-A-Phone would destablise the internet of the era, the voice telephone system.

The engineers in the phone companies weren't naturally anti-innovation.  Rather they rightfully were very proud of what they had built.  And that pride led them to resent and resist further technical change.

We are observing the same kind of resistance to change and ossification of technology occurring in the internet.

What is Tim Berners-Lee's argument except a conclusory assertion that further innovation would be harmful?  And Vixie's statements to the IETF seems to be a kind of territorial marking to warn newcomers that they should neither innovate nor improve customer service if that might erode the F root server's existing user base.

The ability to innovate on the internet is rapidly disappearing.

It is bad enough that the end-to-end principle is being violated by things like Verisign's SiteFinder and by cable operators and ILECs who offer only discriminatory services that are designed to bolster their own offerings at the expense of their competitors.

But there is more beyond the craven moneygrab of things like SiteFinder.  A new wave of resistance to change is developing.  History has shown us that engineers (or those who employ engineers) use seem-like technical arguments as vehicles to promote economic, social, legal, or business goals.

Those who consider the weight of such arguments would do well to ask whether a seemingly technical argument on a business, economic, social, or legal matter is really a technical argument or simply an form of sophistry designed to give the appearance of technical imperative and disinterested evaluation to what is really just another social opinion.

Let me close by once again referring to The First Law of the Internet.  I believe that the First Law provides an appropriate framework in which to balance innovation against the costs of change.

Posted by karl at May 19, 2004 4:32 PM