Trust (but verify) the engineers


Last week, I participated in a program co-sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute, the Lisbon Council, and the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy on "Growing the Transatlantic Digital Economy." The complete program, including keynote remarks from EU VP Neelie Kroes and U.S. Under Secretary of State Catherine A. Novelli, is available below.

My remarks reviewed worrying signs of old-style interventionist trade practices creeping into the digital economy in new guises, and urged traditional governments to stay the course (or correct it) on leaving the Internet ecosystem largely to its own organic forms of regulation and market correctives:

Vice President Kroes’s comments underscore an important reality about innovation and regulation. Innovation, thanks to exponential technological trends including Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law, gets faster and more disruptive all the time, a phenomenon my co-author and I have coined “Big Bang Disruption.”

Regulation, on the other hand, happens at the same pace (at best). Even the most well-intentioned regulators, and I certainly include Vice President Kroes in that list, find in retrospect that interventions aimed at heading off possible competitive problems and potential consumer harms rarely achieve their objectives, and, indeed, generate more harmful unintended consequences.

This is not a failure of government. The clock speeds of innovation and regulation are simply different, and diverging faster all the time. The Internet economy has been governed from its inception by the engineering-driven multistakeholder process embodied in the task forces and standards groups that operate under the umbrella of the Internet Society. Innovation, for better or for worse, is regulated more by Moore’s Law than traditional law.

I happen to think the answer is “for better,” but I am not one of those who take that to the extreme in arguing that there is no place for traditional governments in the digital economy. Governments have and continue to play an essential part in laying the legal foundations for the remarkable growth of that economy and in providing incentives if not funding for basic research that might not otherwise find investors. And when genuine market failures appear, traditional regulators can and should step in to correct them as efficiently and narrowly as they can.

Sometimes this has happened. Sometimes it has not. Where in particular I think regulatory intervention is least effective and most dangerous is in regulating ahead of problems—in enacting what the FCC calls “prophylactic rules.” The effort to create legally sound Open Internet regulations in the U.S. has faltered repeatedly, yet in the interim investment in both infrastructure and applications continues at a rapid pace—far outstripping the rest of the world.

The results speak for themselves. U.S. companies dominate the digital economy, and, as Prof. Christopher Yoo has definitively demonstrated, U.S. consumers overall enjoy the best wired and mobile infrastructure in the world at competitive prices. At the same time, those who continue to pursue interventionist regulation in this area often have hidden agendas. Let me give three examples:

1. As we saw earlier this month at the Internet Governance Forum, which I attended along with Vice President Kroes and 2,500 other delegates, representatives of the developing world were told by so-called consumer advocates from the U.S. and the EU that they must reject so-called “zero rated” services, in which mobile network operators partner with service providers including Facebook, Twitter and Wikimedia to provide their popular services to new Internet users without use applying to data costs.

Zero rating is an extremely popular tool for helping the 2/3 of the world’s population not currently on the Internet get connected and, likely, from these services to many others. But such services violate the “principle” of neutrality that has mutated from an engineering concept to a nearly-religious conviction. And so zero rating must be sacrificed, along with users who are too poor to otherwise join the digital economy.

2. Closer to home, we see the wildly successful Netflix service making a play to hijack the Open Internet debate into one about back-end interconnection, peering, and transit—engineering features that work so well that 99% of the agreements involved between networks, according to the OECD, aren’t even written down.

3. And in Europe, there are other efforts to turn the neutrality principle on its head, using it as a hammer not to regulate ISPs but to slow the progress of leading content and service providers, including Apple, Amazon and Google, who have what the French Digital Council and others refer to as non-neutral “platform monopolies” which must be broken.

To me, these are in fact new faces on very old strategies—colonialism, rent-seeking, and protectionist trade warfare respectively. My hope is that Internet users—an increasingly powerful and independent source of regulatory discipline in the Internet economy—will see these efforts for what they truly are…and reject them resoundingly.

The more we trust (but also verify) the engineers, the faster the Internet economy will grow, both in the U.S. and Europe, and the greater our trade in digital goods and services will strengthen the ties between our traditional economies. It’s worked brilliantly for almost two decades.

The alternatives, not so much.