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Memo to John Markoff: There are No “Do Overs” in History

Think for a moment of the enduring legacy of African slavery in America. Think of the way it tainted this country’s culture and politics; think of the bloody Civil War, the ghettos and race riots after emancipation, the distorted interpersonal relations, the segregated housing patterns. What if we could roll back the clock and ensure that our society was “designed” so that slavery was never permitted and never happened?

Would you give me 20 million dollars to conduct research on that possibility? Would you think I was an honest man if I implied that my research would “fix” racism?

Probably not.

But what if I told you that my computer science lab was working on a “new Internet” that would solve all the terrible security and privacy problems of the existing one? Would you find this claim more credible than a proposed retroactive solution to the problem of slavery?

We all know that the Internet has problems. But the recent discourse around a new Internet, which reached its peak with a New York Times article by John Markoff a few weeks ago, seems to be based on similar false premises. I don’t think it is unfair or too much of a stretch to suggest that the “we need a new Internet” folks are holding out the promise of a historical re-do.

The TCP/IP protocols were (as the Economist wrote about a decade ago) an “accidental information superhighway.” Society converged on the Internet as the basis for data communications because the information economy was at a critical juncture in its history. Personal computers were just beginning to spread. There were numerous competing technologies. Most of the serious contenders were proprietary standards. The 800 pound gorilla in this fight was IBM, and no one (save IBM itself) wanted it to dominate data communications with its proprietary protocols. Open source software communities or alternatives did not exist (or to put it more accurately, the Internet technical community was the first globally organized open source software development community). There was a pressing and immediate need for an open data communications standard. The OSI standards failed to meet that demand. So TCP/IP filled the gap. It became the victor in a global standards competition. We all converged on the protocols and benefited from the network effects.

It was a set of historical conditions that cannot ever be reproduced, that cannot ever be “done over.”

Any “new” standards for data networking will not occupy a virgin field, as TCP/IP did. It will have to intervene into a global economy deeply locked into the old TCP/IP Internet; it must overcome massive inertia and convince people to assume additional cost burdens associated with migration to a new standard. Technological improvements in the Internet protocols are possible, of course, but they can only be implemented on a piecemeal basis, as they piggyback on existing protocols and networks. Any realistic estimate of the time scales for such a migration process should be placed in the range of 30 - 50 years. If you don’t believe me, look at the progress of the existing “next generation” Internet protocol, IPv6, which is on its second decade. This is a standard that comes from the same community and is an evolution of the existing internet protocols—not a radically new one.

One of the related fallacies of the “new Internet” argument is its assumption that the problems of Internet security are exclusively technological in origin and can only be fixed by changes in standards and protocols. But the stark fact is that there are known technological solutions to most if not all existing security breaches. The problem is that they are not implemented by people who don’t know about them, or they are implemented incorrectly, or they are too costly, or they are incompatible with other applications or solutions. The same problems would face any new Internet protocols. And we haven’t even mentioned the possibility that a new standard would be confronted with unanticipated security flaws.

So here’s the punchline: people who say that we can fix the problems of the Internet by developing a “new” Internet are saying, in effect, that we can undo history and start over again. Well, heck, if we can do that, why concentrate on little problems like Internet security? Let’s take on the big ones. Let’s develop a “new Europe” and avoid the slaughter of World War 2; let’s develop a new America and erase slavery.

Like it or not, there is no replacement of the old Internet with a new one. Promising it may be a great strategy for generating piles of government funding. But it ain’t honest.

By Milton Mueller, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy

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Not often I find myself agreeing with you, Milton Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Mar 3, 2009 2:01 PM

This is one such time that I do agree with you.


Agree with Suresh Paul Hoffman  –  Mar 3, 2009 5:00 PM

...both about not often agreeing with Mliton and that this time I do. Excellent analysis, and a punchline that summarizes the problem quite well.

Well someone has to disagree!Firstly, seeing we Ian Peter  –  Mar 6, 2009 10:25 AM

Well someone has to disagree!

Firstly, seeing we are talking long time frames, I think the chance of TCP/IP v4 or v6 being the transport protocol of what might be called the Internet in 2050 is practically nil.

Secondly - and here we might all be in agreement - the chance of new base protocols coming from academic clean slate networking experiments is also close to nil.

Rather, I suspect that within 20 years new applications and means of communication will drive the adoption of new protocols which will basically pave over the old ones, just as we build new roads on top of old ones and we built the internet over the infrastructure of telephony. Something newer and smarter will emerge and TCP/IP will be a thing of the past.

And if I had to guess at a point of origin of the new protocols, I would guess at small innovative business in India or China.

Your last sentence Ian .. Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Mar 6, 2009 10:34 AM

>>> small innovative business in India or China

A basic contradition in terms I fear.  Little or no innovation here and what does exist is speedily choked out. Sure you might have brilliant indians and chinese who are in some other country (USA, Australia, Europe..) do this.

Wouldn't equate research with (erasing) slavery Edward Lewis  –  Mar 6, 2009 7:09 PM

Almost all academic research starts from scratch.  (Otherwise it is a maintenance exercise.)
Almost all graduate students/professors think their work will change the world.
Nearly no academic research projects fulfill their goal of changing the world.
But in each “failed” project students learn, innovations emerge, patents, degrees, jobs.
That leads to the improvements we see over decades of work.

I’m surprised by this post.  It’s not newsworthy that someone has yet another “let’s take a fresh look at society” research project.  I’ve been through them.  Each time the project ends with about a paragraph of new ideas - and that is enough to help better the world.  The paragraph doesn’t erase history but helps prevent us from repeating it.  Research won’t erase what’s happened in history, research isn’t about do-overs, it’s about preventing “re-do’s.”

Responses to the responses from MM Milton Mueller  –  Mar 7, 2009 10:02 AM

Ian: I don’t think we disagree much at all. Your model of how change will occur is close to mine: “roads being paved over,” etc.
Edward: As an academic myself of course I know quite well what can and cannot come from such research projects. My objections are based on the “truth in advertising” rationale that academics should not exploit ignorant hopes that the Internet can be “redone.” Based on my direct encounters with the researchers, funding agencies and govt policy makers involved in this discourse I know for a fact that that is what is going on. As for newsworthiness, hey, talk to Markoff - it wasn’t me that made this into international news, it was the New York Times.

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