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Thoughts on the Open Internet - Part 6: Final Thoughts

Today we just don’t have an “Open” Internet.

The massive proliferation of network-based middleware has resulted in an internet that has few remaining open apertures. Most of the time the packet you send is not precisely the packet I receive, and all too often if you deviate from a very narrowly set of technical constraints within this packet, then the packet you send is the packet I will never receive. The shortage of addresses has meant that the rigors of scarcity has replaced the largesse of abundance and with this has come the elevation of what used to be thought of as basic utility, including privacy and security in online services into the category of luxury goods only accessible at a considerable price premium. Our technology base is being warped and distorted to cope with an inadequate supply of addresses and the ramifications extend out from the basic domain of the internet protocol upwards into the area of online services and their provisioning. From the crowding out of open technology by encroaching IPR claims, to the problems of the mass of our legacy base restricting where and how we can innovate and change, and the rigors of scarcity of addresses, the picture of the technology of the Internet is now far from “open.”

Maybe the “open” Internet is something entirely different. Maybe it’s about the policy environment, and the competitive landscape. Maybe it’s about the attributes of having no barriers to entry in the supply of goods and service using the Internet. This could be deregulation of the carriage and/or access regime, allowing competitive in packet transport. Or the ability to deliver content and services without requiring the incumbents’ permission and without extortionate price gouging on the part of providers of critical bottleneck resources. Maybe in the “open” Internet we are talking about the benefits from low barriers to entry, innovation, entrepreneurialism and competition in the provision of goods and services over the Internet platform.

But this is not “open” either. The fact that we’ve exhausted our stock of IP addresses impinges on this considerations of markets for the provision of goods and services on the Internet, and their open operation. Without your own pool of IPv4 addresses you cannot set up a packet pushing business, so that’s no longer “open”. And without your own pool of IPv4 addresses you cannot set up secure services as a content service provider. So as long as you are willing to offer goods and services over an open, insecure, untrusted channel, and as long are you are willing to put the fate of your enterprise in the hands of your virtual neighbours with whom you are sharing IP addresses and hosting platforms, and so low as the price of access to these shared address resources is not in itself a barrier to entry, then perhaps this niche is still accessible. But its not what we intended it to be. It’s not “open”.

Perhaps the “open” Internet, in the sense of being an “open” platform that can carry the hopes and aspirations of a socially transformative power of a post-industrial digital economy, is now fading into an ephemeral afterglow.

Maybe its not too late, and maybe we can salvage this. But there are many moving parts here, and they all deserve attention. We need to use an open common technology platform that offers abundant pools of protocol addresses. Yes, I’m referring to IPv6. But that’s by no means the end of this list. We need continuing access to software tools and techniques. We need open software. We need open technology. We need open devices and open access to security. We need to open competitive access to the access infrastructure of wires and access to the radio spectrum. We need open markets that do not place any private or public enterprise in overarching positions of market dominance. We need an open governance structure that does not place any single nation state in a uniquely privileged position. We need open dialogues that enfranchise stakeholders to directly participate in conversations that matter to them. Indirect representation is just not good enough. We need all of these inputs and more. And each of them are critical, in as much as we are aware from centuries of experience that failure in any of these individual aspects translates to catastrophic failure of the entire effort.

Yes, this is asking a lot from all of us. But, in particular, its asking a lot from our policy makers and regulators. The mantra that deregulated markets will naturally lead to these forms of beneficial outcomes that enrich the public good ignores a rich history of market distortions, manipulations and outright failures. An “open” Internet is not a policy free zone where market inputs are the sole constraint. Markets aggregate, monopolies form, and incumbents naturally want to set forth constraints and conditions that define the terms of any form of future competition. And in this space of market behaviours our only residual control point lies in the judicious use of considered regulatory frameworks that encourages beneficial public good outcomes.

At best, I would label the “open” Internet an aspirational objective right now. We don’t have one. It would be good if we had one, and perhaps, in time, we might get one. But the current prospects are not all that good, and talking about today’s Internet as if it already has achieved all of these “open” aspirations is perhaps, of all of the choices before us, the worst thing we could do.

Today’s Internet is many things, but it’s certainly not an “open” Internet. It could be, but to get there it’s not just going to happen by itself. It’s going to need our help.

By Geoff Huston, Author & Chief Scientist at APNIC

(The above views do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre.)

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