A proposal for governing the 'Net

We need a body like the IETF but providing a forum in which parties focused on operations and economics can work together.

Networking people tend to be unusually interested in politics and effective governance strategies. That's because networking is the art and science of making many disparate entities cooperate for the common good - which also happens to be the primary challenge of effective government.

Before the Internet, the defining governance model was monarchy, with Ma Bell as the unquestioned queen, operating with autocratic authority. The Internet broke that model, returning power to the "states" (individual ISPs) and "people" (individual routers), each of which makes informed decisions based on the best-available information.

Thus, many Internet architects associate the Internet model with the best parts of both democracy and the free market.Even the IETF itself, the forum for interested parties to work together on technical projects for the common good, was explicitly modeled after the Athenian democracy.

Did the Internet/IETF governance model work? In many respects, yes. Early on, the IETF produced key protocols at a much faster clip than other network standards bodies (such as the IEEE and the ITU). Although many IETF veterans strenuously object to calling the IETF a "standards body," whatever you call it, the IETF did an outstanding job midwifing protocols and accelerating the 'Net's adoption.

Does the model still work? I'm not sure. In my view, the biggest concerns facing the Internet today are regulatory and operational, rather than technical. For example, how do we encourage providers to respect each other's QoS tags? Is it acceptable for providers to censor traffic for competitive advantage? Should providers be required to devote some of their revenues toward services "for the common good," such as universal Internet access?

The IETF isn't great at these regulatory or operational issues (nor, in all fairness, would one expect it to be).

So what should we do? One answer is to call in the federal government. I'm not a huge fan of government regulation; it can be better than the alternatives, but regulation tends to slow down an industry's rate of innovation. Moreover, the Internet is international, so whose federal government would we turn to as the referee? Yet waiting for the free market to answer these questions doesn't seem to be working, either.

So my suggestion is we need a body like the IETF but providing a forum in which parties focused on operations and economics can work together. Something, in other words, like the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), which essentially acts as a referee for the securities industry, setting baseline regulations and overseeing the conduct of member firms.

Call it the International Association of Networking Service Providers (IANSP). Like NASD (and unlike the IETF), participation would be on a per-provider (not per-person) basis - and the IANSP would be chartered with ensuring that service providers play well together. To the extent the IANSP could be self-regulating, it could benefit the common good by streamlining Internet operations - while minimizing the need for governmental interference.

Am I nuts? Quite possibly. Write in and let me know what you think.

Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached at johna@nemertes.com.

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