MY SAY: A proposal for governing the 'Net

MY SAY: A proposal for governing the 'Net

Before the Internet, the defining governance model was monarchy, with Ma Bell [US telephone system] 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 Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) itself, the forum for interested parties to work together on technical projects for the common good, was explicitly modelled after the Athenian democracy.

Did the Internet/IETF governance model work? Early on, the IETF produced key protocols at a much faster clip than other network standards bodies. It did an outstanding job bringing life to protocols and accelerating the 'Net's adoption.

But 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 Quality of Service 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 tends to slow down an industry's rate of innovation. Moreover, the Internet is international, so whose 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. Call it the International Association of Networking Service Providers (IANSP).

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 minimising 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

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