Two Years on the Internet Equals an Eternity

Video is now available for all of the excellent programming at this year’s State of The Net 2011 conference. (Programming will also be available over time on C-SPAN’s video library.) The Conference, organized by the Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus, featured Members of Congress, leading academics, Administration, agency, and Congressional staff and other provocateurs. Topics this year ranged from social networking, Wikileaks, COICA, copyright, privacy, security, broadband policy and, of course, the end-of-the-year vote by the FCC to approve new rules for network management by broadband providers, aka net neutrality.

(My article for CNET on the communications agenda for the new Congress is here.)

I was honored to sit on the net neutrality panel, joined by Colin Crowell, former legal advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Markham Erickson of the Open Internet Coalition, and Professor Christopher Yoo of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The panel was ably moderated by Tim Lordan, Executive Director of the Advisory Committee.

My colleagues had clearly all read the Report and Order closely, and the discussion was lively and far-ranging.

But one exchange I had with Markham Erickson at the very end of the panel (roughly minute 55) has continued to haunt me. After listing some of the exceptions and caveats that the final rules included to account for the reality of non-neutral technologies and practices that have developed over the last ten years, I pointed out that the FCC has now put a stake in the ground, arbitrarily as of late 2010, to say these and no more–or at least no more without our permission. That, as I pointed out in an earlier post on the Report, is what makes the new rules so dangerous, in that they will effectively put screeching brakes on further advances in network management.

Not to worry, said Markham Erickson. “The FCC sort of understood that and accounted for that, and said they’d have a review of all these rules within two years.”

As someone who still spends more time in Silicon Valley than in Washington, that reassurance hit me like a cold bucket of water to the face. For it’s true that in Washington time, rules that will be reviewed after two years are rules that will operate for a very short period of time indeed. But in Internet time, two years is a very long time. In two years, great information empires can rise and fall, thousands of exciting startups will be launched and shuttered, new products embraced with wild enthusiasm will become tomorrow’s e-waste.

If the rules do have the effect of skewing, stunting, or stalling new technologies to improve network performance, two years might as well be an eternity.

That’s what’s most worrisome, in the end, about the increasingly accident-prone intersection of information technology and policy. Information technology travels at the speed of Moore’s Law, accelerating all the time. Government is by design slow, deliberate, and incremental, a format well-suited to everything but revolutionary change.

One kind of traffic enters the intersection at 5 miles per hour; the other at 100 miles per hour. The latter is so fast that the former doesn’t even see it coming, and only knows it was there because of the calamitous effects of the crash.