Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Net, has a very thoughtful post up on the Google Public Policy Blog today asking “What’s a Reasonable Approach for Managing Broadband Networks?” He runs through a variety of theoretical approaches to network load management. There’s much there to ponder, but I just wanted to comment briefly on the very last thing he says in the piece:
Over the past few months, I have been talking with engineers at Comcast about some of these network management issues. I’ve been pleased so far with the tone and substance of these conversations, which have helped me to better understand the underlying motivation and rationale for the network management decisions facing Comcast, and the unique characteristics of cable broadband architecture. And as we said a few weeks ago, their commitment to a protocol-agnostic approach to network management is a step in the right direction.
I found this of great interest because for the last few months I have been wondering: (a) why isn’t there more of that sort of inter- and intra-industry dialogue going on, and (b) what could be done to encourage more of it? With the exception of those folks at the extreme fringe of the Net neutrality movement, most rational people involved in this debate accept the fact that there will be legitimate network management issues that industry must deal with from time to time. So, how can we get people in industry — from all quarters of it — to sit down at a negotiating table and hammer things out voluntarily before calling in the regulators to impose ham-handed, inflexible solutions? What we are talking about here is the need for a technical dispute resolution process that doesn’t involve the FCC.
If the anti-Net neutrality regulation crowd (and that includes me!) wants to be taken seriously when they talk about “self-regulatory” solutions, this sort of dispute resolution process becomes essential. And the pro-Net neutrality regulation crowd needs to understand that, even if they ultimately desire some role for the FCC here, regulatory resolutions to technical disputes are notoriously slow and ultimately will always be one step behind the technical dispute du jour.
Therefore, wouldn’t it be nice if, as Cerf suggests above, those parties with a technical dispute about network management had a way of talking things through immediately and before they went to the regulatory equivalent of mutually assured destruction?
All the relevant players in the broadband / Internet sector need to put their heads together and think about how to create a forum or process that can serve as such a technical dispute resolution mechanism. On a smaller scale, Comcast and Bit Torrent did this in a voluntary, bilateral fashion when they sat down to hammer out a collaborative agreement in March. As their press announcement noted:
Comcast Corporation and BitTorrent, Inc. announced today that they will undertake a collaborative effort with one another and with the broader Internet and ISP community to more effectively address issues associated with rich media content and network capacity management. While BitTorrent and Comcast are talking directly, they are also in discussions with other parties to help facilitate a broader dialogue and cooperation across industries.
But we know that countless more technical disputes will arise in the future at every layer of the Internet — not just with Comcast and BitTorrent. Thus, if we are really going to achieve “a broader dialogue and cooperation across industries” then what we really need is the equivalent of a multilateral trade negotiating process or forum to achieve sensible resolutions to complex technical difficulties surround Internet network management.
I am not prepared to say whether a new, formal organization is needed to accomplish this or if existing institutions and individuals (academic, trade associations, etc) might be able to work together to make this happen. For example, and I am just thinking out loud here so don’t quote me on this, what if we had the Internet Society working in conjunction with several major industry trade associations and some respected academic institutions to form some sort of collaborative, dialogue-oriented dispute resolution process? Sort of GATT or WTO for technical Internet dispute resolution.
Certainly that would be preferable to a politicized FCC taking over the show and making all these technical decisions, no? I’d be interested in hearing some input from others.