I want to very highly recommend Barbara van Schewick’s Internet Architecture and Innovation. Various authors, advocates, scholars, and businesses have spoken about the economic impacts of the Internet, but to date there hasn’t been a detailed economic accounting of what may happen if/when ISPs monitor and control the flow of data across their networks. van Schewick has filled this gap by examining “how changes in the Internet’s architecture (that is, its underlying technical structure) affect the economic environment for innovation” and evaluating “the impact of these changes from the perspective of public policy” (van Schewick 2010: 2).
Her book traces the economic consequences associated with changing the Internet’s structure from one enabling any innovator to design an application or share content online to a structure where ISPs must first authorize access to content and design key applications in house (e.g. P2P, email, etc). Barbara draws heavily from Internet history literatures and economic theory to buttress her position that a closed or highly controlled Internet not only constitutes a massive change in the original architecture of the ‘net, but that this change would be damaging to society’s economic, cultural, and political interests. She argues that an increasingly controlled Internet is the future that many ISPs prefer, and supports this conclusion with economic theory and the historical actions of American telecommunications corporations.
van Schewick begins by outlining two notions of the end-to-end principle undergirding the ‘net, a narrow and broad conception, and argues (successfully, in my mind) that ISPs and their interrogators often rely on different end-to-end understandings in making their respective arguments to the public, regulators, and each other.
Briefly, the narrow version of the end-to-end argument (derived from Saltzer, Reed, and Clark’s 1981 paper) states that:
A function should be implemented in a lower layer [of the network stack], if it can be completely and correctly implemented at that layer. Sometimes an incomplete implementation of the function at the lower layer may be useful as a performance enhancement (van Schewick 2010: 58).
The broad version of this argument, derived from subsequent writings of Reed et al., asserts that:
A function or service should be carried out within a network layer only if it is needed by all clients of that layer, and it can be completely implemented in that layer (van Schewick 2010: 58).
The broad version of the end-to-end argument is stronger and often referred to by policy texts and descriptions of the ‘net’s architecture whereas the first argument is preferred by engineers and technical discussants. The usage of differing notions of end-to-end have led defenders of the differing shades of the end-to-end principle to speak past one another. Further, divergent understandings of the end-to-end architectural discussion has created, and continues to create, rifts between engineers, between those who were (and remain) central to the development of the ‘net more generally, and between those publishing technically informed economic writings about the Internet. This is not a small issue; the conceptual possibilities latent in either definition ‘authorize’ stronger or weaker approaches to mediating applications and content at differing levels of the network stack itself.
After differentiating between the narrow and broad approaches to end-to-end, van Schewick identifies the impacts of different Internet architectures on the costs of innovation, the resulting organizational makeup of innovating parties, and the effects architecture has on the competition of complementary goods (e.g. VoIP, filesharing, email, etc as opposed to the actual hardware composing the Internet). After laying this groundwork, van Schewick works through how deviations from the ‘broad’ end-to-end argument affect innovation and the consequences of centralized versus decentralized application development and content distribution. The book concludes with an analysis of the public versus private interests in network architectures, with the author asserting that citizens and their public representatives must understand the impacts of architecture on the Internet’s future. ISPs are attempting to better control and monetize their networks, and these attempts may undermine the possibilities of innovation while sacrificing the long-term evolution of the ‘net so that companies can realize short-term profits. Such sacrifices must be critically interrogated by a public that is increasingly relying on digital communications in all facets of life and business.
This is a heavy read, a read made heavier if you haven’t spent some time reading economic theory, elements of the network neutrality debates of the past decade, and a little on the evolution of American telecommunications in the past two decades. This said, the author generally does a terrific job in walking the reader through every facet of her argument, using examples and sidenotes to expand and clarify more troublesome sections of the book (especially as it relates to economic theory and approaches to innovation). I highly recommend this book – it’s worth every penny that it will cost you. It also includes an extensive set of citations and reference list (about 160 pages worth) that will be helpful for any subsequent research or reading beyond the text itself.
If I have a criticism of the book it’s that it tends to be very American-centric. While the principles contained in the book remain general enough that readers can lay the theoretical model she traces upon the telecommunications landscape of non-US states, this is a bit of work that non-American readers will have to do when examining their own telecommunications landscape through her lens. This may somewhat limit the book’s immediate guidance to policy makers, policy analysts, economists, Internet governance scholars, and concerned/interested citizens more generally, but not so much that any of these readers should stay away.
I have a suspicion that this book will become one of the centrepieces for Internet governance literatures in coming years, and likely to be as influential Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom with regards to the economics of the Internet. If issues around Internet governance, innovation, and control are your cup of tea then consider this book an absolute must buy.
B. van Schewick. (2010). Internet Architecture and Innovation. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.