The Challenge of Architectural Changes

by on April 24, 2008 · 6 comments

Over at Techdirt, I’ve got a series of posts that highlight some of the major arguments in my forthcoming paper on network neutrality. I’m particularly pleased with the latest installment of the series:

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.

I focus on an aspect of the debate that I’ve seen receive almost no attention elsewhere: assuming that network discrimination remains legal, how much power could network owners actually exert over the use of their networks? There’s an assumption on both sides that ownership of a network automatically translates to comprehensive control over how it’s used. But I have yet to see anyone give a plausible explanation of how a last mile provider would get from the open network they’ve got now to the tightly-controlled one that network neutrality advocates fear. It’s always simply asserted, as Lessig does here, and then taken as a given for the rest of the argument. It’s a weakness in the pro-regulation argument that I wish more critics of regulation would highlight.

I go on to discuss the difficulties of real-world architectural transitions. Read the whole thing here.

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