What’s Neutral about the Net

I posted this to a list I’m on, where a long thread on Net Neutrality was running out of steam:doc036c

Since we seem to have reached a pause in this discussion, I would like to suggest that there are emergent properties of the Internet that are not reducible to its mechanisms, and it is respect for those emergent properties that drives NN advocates to seek policy protections for the flourishing of those properties. So let’s set NN aside for a bit, and talk about those.

For example, whether or not “end to end” is a correct description of the Internet’s architecture, that’s pretty close to how it looks and feels to most of its users, most of the time. By that I mean the Net reduces our functional distance from each other (as ends) to zero, or close enough to experience the distance as zero. There little if any sense of “long distance” — that old telco term. Nor is there a sense that it should cost more to connect with one person or entity than another, anywhere in the world (except where some mobile phone data plans leverage legacy telco billing imperatives).

And while the routers, CDNs and other smart things between the Net’s ends deserve respect for their intelligence, they still tend to serve everything that runs across the Net without much prejudice, and thus appear to be “stupid” in the sense David Isenberg visited in The Rise of the Stupid Network, which he wrote for his unappreciative overlords at (Ye Olde) AT&T back in ’97. In other words, users don’t sense that network itself wants to get in the way of its uses, or to bill for any one kind of use while not billing for another. (Yes, sites and services on the Net can bill for whatever they want. But they are not the Net, any more than a store on Main Street is the gravity that holds it there.)

While providers of access to the Net charge for the privilege, the Net itself — that thing made possible by its base protocols — has no business model. This is one reason it produces economic externalities in abundance beyond calculation. More than a rising tide that lifts all boats, it is a world of infinitely varied possibilities, all made possible by a base nature that no phone or cable company ever would have invented for the world, had the job been left up to them alone.

I remember, back in the 80s and early 90s, knowing that the Net was a genie still bottled inside universities, large companies and government entities — and that it would grant a zillion wishes once it got out. Which it did, starting in ’95. Ever since then I have devoted my life, one way or another, to understanding What’s Going On with the Net. I never will understand its inner workings as fully as … many others on this list. But I believe I do understand enough about the transcendent virtues of the Net to stand on their side and say we need to preserve and enhance them.

It is clear to me that there is a whole to the Net that is not reducible to any of its parts, any more than a human being is reducible to the body’s organic systems. And I believe it is easy to miss or dismiss that whole when insisting that the Net is only a “network of networks” or some other sum of parts.

When our attention is only on those parts, and making them work better for some specialized purpose, we risk compromising the general purpose nature of the Net… By serving the needs of one purpose we risk crippling countless other purposes.

I’d say more, but I have meetings to attend. This might be enough for now anyway.

The post only got one reply so far, from one of the Net’s founding figures. He approved. [Later… it’s turned into a thread now.]

The problem for Net Neutrality is that the founding protocols of the Net are neutral by nature, and yet the Net is something we mostly “access” through phone and cable companies, which by nature are not. This tends not to be a problem where there is competition. But in the U.S., at least, there mostly isn’t, at least on the wired side. (The wireless side has some interesting rock and roll going on.) This also tends not to be a problem where carriers are just that: carriers, rather than content-delivery systems with a financial interest in favoring the delivery of one kind of content — or one “partner’s” content — over others.

But the Net is about “content” like water is about drinking. Meaning, it’s not. It’s about everything. That’s how it’s neutral.


  1. Philip Sheldrake’s avatar

    Doc, keep up the fight. We had a wobble here in Europe, but things are working out now, leaving us more worried about the way things are playing out in the US and other parts of the world. I have referenced the emergent properties of the Net in my book and posts, and know I’ll be quoting your neat final para here.

    In “Zil Lanes 2.0” I adopt the definition of neutrality of not discriminating packets based on origin, but rather than technical policy it appears that the commercial centralization of the Net is the root problem. This is wrought in extrema in the world’s greatest capitalist market despite the irony of its consequential proclivity for the modern day version of a Soviet Union ‘innovation’.

    Which is why I’m involving myself in the Ethereum project. The architecture remains flawed in my humble opinion, specifically its continued reliance on proof-of-work in the blockchain, but I believe this will be resolved. Excitingly, Ethereum embeds decentralization cryptographically.

    The blockchain creates the unprecedented facility for incorruptible decentralized database, and this pure and simple characteristic forms the foundation of the Ethereum platform from which we might enshrine the original properties envisaged for the Net in a way that cannot be hijacked.

    I could waffle on here, but Taylor Gerring has done the hard work for me: building the decentralized web 3.0. I think the innovation has more to do with the Internet than the Web, so wouldn’t use the phrase “Web 3.0” myself, but otherwise it’s a succinct summary of the possibilities.

    I extend the associated concept of Decentralized Autonomous Organization in my presentation, The Future of Organization.

  2. Rikard Linde’s avatar

    Really interesting Doc, as usual. Have you seen the Reddit contest to rebrand Net Neutrality:


  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    A belated thanks, Phillip. All great stuff.

    And Rickard, yes, I did see that on Reddit. I also think it’s a mistake. The baby has been named, and she’s called Neutrality. We need to make the most of that, which is why I wrote this post.

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