One of the central questions behind TFOI is this: Can anyone really own the Internet? In other words, can it be substantially privatized? We know that there are already thousands of companies who are making money by using the Internet. It is a hotbed for commercial activity. But is it possible to own a big enough or an important enough piece of the Internet, to become a vertically integrated owner of the content, code, and communications infrastructure, that for a given community you can exert control over it -- you can impose rules that serve your interests while disrupting others for instance. Are there companies that can do it already? TFOI explains that there is.
In order to understand this problem you first have to understand the open, neutral, and end-to-end architecture of the Internet's original design. This site attempts, naively, to explain some of the infrastructure. In reality the workings of the Internet are a much more complex mix and flux of open and proprietary standards deeply affected by factors such as corporate mergers, regulation and deregulation, access inequities, and new technologies just to name a few. What's more is that, in order to appreciate its potential and its potential trappings, it should be viewed in the context of a broader media ecology incorporating all layers and all media which came before it.
The end-to-end principle is meant to guide designers in developing protocols and applications for the network. End-to-end, or e2e, says that we should keep intelligence in a network at the ends, or in the applications, leaving the network itself to be simple. This site touches on the practical nature and merit of maintaining end-to-end standards. By its very design the computers within the network, the machines which we rely on to make connections with other computers, should perform only the simplest tasks common to all computers at the ends. Straying from this design incurs consequences that far exceed technical limitations.
Consider this excerpt from p. 35 of TFOI:
"...architecture matters. And arguably no principle of network architecture has been more important to the success of the Internet than this single principle of network design -e2e. How a system is designed will affect the freedoms and control the system enables. And how the Internet was designed intimately affected the freedoms and controls that it has enables. The code of cyberspace -i-ts architecture and the software and hardware that implement that architecture-- regulates life in cyberspace generally. Its code is its law..."
The question that Lessig presses with TFOI is the inherent relationship between architecture and innovation --both commercial innovation and cultural innovation. He explains how the end-to-end principle is critical in establishing the famous network effect that develops on the Internet when a new killer app is introduced, critical for allowing new applications not yet invented to build upon the Internet, and critical in preventing network owners from discriminating against a new invention and disrupting the free use of others.
The innovation that flourished in the early days of the Internet is attributable to these principles. But that was before the Internet became a corporate and legal battlefield. Consider Doc Searls take on what has happened since (by way of Escapable Logic):
"The Net's end-to-end nature is so severely anathema to cable and telco companies that they have done everything they can to make the Net as controlled and asymmetrical as possible. They want the Net to be more like television, and to a significant degree, they've succeeded. Most DSL and cable broadband customers take it for granted that downstream speeds are faster than upstream speeds, that they can't operate servers out of their houses and that the only e-mail addresses they can use are ones that end with the name of their telephone or cable company.
And why not? These companies "own" the Net, don't they? Well, no, they don't. They only "provide" it--critical difference.
The gradual destruction of the Net is getting political protection by two strong conservative value systems. One values success, and the other values property."
Or as Lessig puts it:
"At the same time that media concentration restrictions are being removed, such that three companies will own everything, so too are neutrality restrictions for the network being eliminated, so that those same three companies--who also will control broadband access--are totally free to architect broadband however they wish. "The Internet that is to be the savior is a dying breed. The end-to-end architecture that gave us its power will, in effect, be inverted. And so the games networks play to benefit their own will bleed to this space too." –"But there's the Internet"Systems displaying end-to-end principles
- electricity grid
- public roads
- universal healthcare
- dial tone
What is contrary to end-to-end (at either the physical, code, or content layer)
- tiered access
- access inequities & the digital divide
- discrimination (barring access, sniffing for terrorists)
- deregulation - as in network access
- excessive IP protection
- regulation - as in spectrum
Posted by Mark Hemphill on March 4, 2004 | Permalink
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