Tuesday, March 04, 2008

peeve no. 257 is the idea of Internet "governance"

I'm not sure if this opinion places me in the category of realist or idealist, but the whole idea of Internet "governance" irks me. The Internet is a "network of networks", and a network is a connection between devices. It's a simple idea, while at the same time being fiendishly complicated to put into practice. The Internet is "devices talking to one another".

Nobody should find it necessary to comment that the Internet is decentralized, or to comment that the value of the Internet is at the "edges", i.e. the devices actually sending and receiving data. In simple terms, when ma and pa click on an icon for a Web browser to "go to the Internet", the closer metaphor isn't switching TV channels or turning pages in a massive encyclopedia (Information Superhighway, remember that?). They're telling the computer to "make a phone call" to other computers. This point was easier to emphasize back when people plugged a regular phone line right in to the computer's internal or external modem. IPTV and VOIP probably interfere further with the casual user's attempt at a metaphorical understanding...

If the fundamental Internet is just computers talking, then discussing its fundamental "governance" is nutty. Who "governs" TCP, UDP, and so on? Who "governs" HTML, CSS? Who "governs" SMTP, POP, IMAP? Who "governs" IP, IPv6? The Internet is communication. What matters is that the communication works right here, right now. Standards and protocols enable valid communication. The "penalty" is miscommunication, e.g., a malformed data packet or a web page that's "broken" in an idiosyncratic renderer.

No entity--company, government, standards body--"governs" the Internet. The Internet isn't owned by them either. I want to believe this is true. The irresistible tendency to see the Internet as a marketplace, public diary, fan convention, software development technique, leisure entertainment, newsroom, information repository, and so forth masks the reality. There is no such thing as cyberspace and no such thing as blogosphere. The Internet is device A exchanging data with remote device B, via a path of complex technologies and intermediaries. At the point at which almost all important information interaction happens through this method, and yet strict governance extends to the same level of micromanagement of communication, previous lacks of privacy will seem tame.

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