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Internet Religious Wars: Net Neutrality Episode

Turning network technical protocols into religion seems like an inherently bad idea—transient and unstable at best. However, it happens.

More than 40 years ago, the world of legacy telecommunications and network design formalism started the tendency with OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) and ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Networks). A few years later, the academic research community did it with their myriad host-to-host datagram protocols—eventually calling one “the Internet.” A little later, still more researchers did the same thing with information exchange protocols—eventually calling one of them “the Web.”

Battles were waged for years for supremacy as the one true “internet” or “Web.” Some of the factions turned their protocols into religious tenets; and personalities, in bouts of self-aggrandizement, went forth as Moses-like patriarchs handing down religious commandments and rewriting history. Young acolytes entering the technical, legal, and political professions were drawn to the mantras that promised unbounded wealth and world peace to the followers. Some companies and countries reaped enormous monetary and political benefits.

The latest episodes in this unfortunate techno-religious proclivity are now emerging. One involves an especially egregious hyperbolic excess of the Internet Wars known as Net Neutrality. The winning internet protocol religious faction, having infused the Washington political system with their Templar Knights in 2009, baked their commandments into the embarrassing December 2010 Report & Order of the FCC as “preserving the free and open internet.” “Today the Commission takes an important step to preserve the Internet as an open platform for innovation, investment, job creation, economic growth, competition, and free expression.” Nevermind that they never actually defined “the Internet.” They simply believed that whatever it was, the FCC as a federal government agency needed to “preserve” it as a religious belief to be imposed upon everyone.

Five years later in 2015, the FCC went further and declared that preserving the prevailing internet beliefs required that “no person” providing broadband access, could “unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage (i) end users’ ability to select, access, and use broadband Internet access service or the lawful Internet content, applications, services, or devices of their choice, or (ii) edge providers’ ability to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to end users.” Just how this religious tenet turned into law would be imposed on the world outside the Commission’s jurisdiction was simply ignored. Furthermore, the generic function was that of other government agencies—the Federal Trade Commission or in extreme circumstances, the Dept. of Justice.

The FCC also reversed the course of network regulatory history by decreeing that anyone providing access was effectively a public utility and describing the regulatory bundle using the oxymoron term NetNeutrality. It was, of course, only “net neutrality” for providers on the edges—some of whom have ironically become the functional equivalent of public utilities. It wasn’t as if the potential for abuse within transport paths might not exist. However, as many observers commented, it was an extreme solution to the problem by the wrong federal agency.

Now, two years later, with the Internet Knights Templar expelled from Washington, this episode of the internet religious wars seems to be drawing to a close. Network religious agnosticism is ensuing at the FCC with its no longer “respecting an establishment of ‘network protocol’ religion.” With a little luck with Commission action in December and the rapid implementation of new network protocols and technologies going forward, the NetNeutrality episode in the continuing Internet Wars should draw to a close.

The first internetworking protocols were used to interoperate communication networks almost 170 years ago. For the most part, even as new technologies appeared, the protocols remained largely free from exhibits of religious zealotry over the protocols, except perhaps for mass communications.

Arguably the proclivity began to significantly change 45 years ago when Louis Pouzin developed the first true internet protocol in France that set the stage for all the many episodes of the Internet Wars over the ensuing decades. Numerous business, academic, and government research initiatives and products were unleashed and became the subject of constant market and political shaping exercises that crested and subsided. Along that historical continuum, the more zealous have succumbed to diverse kinds of religious self-righteousness to further their views and objectives—with Net Neutrality perhaps representing the apex. It was a bad idea in the past. It is bad now.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

The author is a leader in many international cybersecurity bodies developing global standards and legal norms over many years.

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