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Permissionless Innovation: Why It Matters

We live in a world of information abundance and the proliferation of ideas. Through mobile devices, tablets, laptops and computers we can access and create any sort of data in a ubiquitous way. But, it was not always like that. Before the Internet information was limited and was travelling slow. Our ancestors depended on channels of information that were often subjected to various policy and regulatory restrictions.

The Internet changed all that. Suddenly everything became possible; everyone had the same opportunities to become a creator or publisher of ideas or a distributor of information. The Internet connected people and their ideas; it has contributed to social empowerment and economic growth. But, have we ever stood long enough to consider what makes the Internet such a special invention? What is it that makes the Internet such a multifaceted tool that never ceases to amaze us with its potential?

In a nutshell—it is “permissionless innovation”.

Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet who originally coined the term, has argued that permissionless innovation is responsible for the economic benefits of the Internet. Based on open standards, the Internet gives the opportunity to entrepreneurs, creators and inventors to try new business models without asking permission.

But, permissionless innovation is even more than that. It is about experimentation and exploration of the limits of human imagination. It is about allowing people to think, to create, to build, to construct, to structure and to assemble any idea, thought or theory and turn it into the new Google, Facebook, Spotify or Netflix. As Adam Thierer says in his book “Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Technological Freedom”:

“Permissionless innovation is about the creativity of the human mind to run wild in its inherent curiosity and inventiveness. In a word, permission¬≠less innovation is about freedom.”

Freedom, not anarchy. Leslie Diagle eloquently places the freedom aspect of permissionless innovation into context in her blog post: “Permissionless innovation: openness, not anarchy”:

Permissionless innovation” is not about fomenting disruption outside the bounds of appropriate behaviour; “permissionless” is a guideline for fostering innovation by removing barriers to entry.

This makes permissionless innovation is an inseparable part of the Internet. Standards organizations that have witnessed the benefits of permissionless innovation refer to it as “the ability of others to create new things on top of the existing communications structures. Ultimately, all entities are working toward the same goal and developments by one party can aid in the creation of another.”

Of course, all this freedom should not be seen isolated from our societal structures. It is freedom that operates within certain boundaries of behavior that trial test the manifestations of permissionless innovation. These boundaries can be normative or the rule of law. But, they kick in after the creator has created and after the inventor has invented in a permission-free environment. And, so they should. Permissionless innovation is not a sign of disorder; it indicates structured order.

Imagine a world without Facebook or YouTube. Imagine a world where your creations can be subject to authorization by third parties. Imagine a world where the end result of your product is only part of what you have imagined.

Imagine a world where ultimately certain uses of the Internet are prohibited. But, not so long ago, use of the Internet was prohibited. The 1982 MIT handbook for the use of ARPAnet—the precursor of the Internet, instructed the students:

“It is considered illegal to use the ARPAnet for anything which is not in direct support of government business… Sending electronic mail over the ARPAnet for commercial profit or political purposes is both anti-social and illegal. By sending such messages, you can offend people, and it is possible to get MIT in serious trouble with the government agencies which manage the ARPAnet.”

Now, instead of “government business” imagine “ANY business”.

Permissionless innovation is key to the Internet’s continued development. We should preserve it and not question it.

By Konstantinos Komaitis, Senior Director, Policy Development and Implementation, Internet Society

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of ISOC or its position.

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