From Imagining The Internet's Future To Examining The Internet Ecosystem

Silicon Flatirons Executive Director Phil Weiser penned a blog post reflecting on the recent Digital Broadband Migration conference.

By Phil Weiser

This year’s Digital Broadband Migration conference was, once again, the highlight of the year for Silicon Flatirons. Most notably, it sparked a most interesting and unintended discussion about the difference between approaching issues from the perspective of “broadband” or from the perspective of the “Internet” – a distinction, in one sense, between the physical network on the one hand and the applications that run over it, on the other. (See Brad Feld’s analogy, in a comment to this post, which nicely sums up the first day of the conference.) Brad actually suggested the two perspectives in a post before the conference, which he explicated the next day. At the conference, Brad suggested that the two communities were living in parallel universes. By that, he meant not that they were actually separate–indeed, the two are interdependent–but that they spoke different languages. For shorthand, Brad separated the two based on who used Twitter. (Mea culpa–I opened my account today.) A more familiar distinction was the one offered by Dale Hatfield–those focused on what happens in the core of the network and those focused on what happens at the edge.

The classic divide between the two perspectives emerged from Brad’s exchange with Mark Cooper, where Brad rejected the call for regulation of the Internet, invoking an ethos long shared by those in the Internet community concerned about an array of possible regulatory interventions. (See here for a reflection on this ethos.) But upon further discussion, Mark and Brad realized that they were talking about different things, with Mark calling for regulation of the network layer–the protection of open access to broadband infrastructure–and Brad thinking about the regulation of Internet applications.

Throughout the conference, it was clear that the network neutrality debate has evolved since it was first broached at this conference six years ago. As Paul Kapustka noted in his post, the question increasingly being asked in policy circles–particularly after the FCC’s decision in the Comcast matter–is not whether to mandate the concept, but how. That question is inextricably linked, of course, with another how question–how to reform the FCC. That discussion, which we discussed previously and are calling for continuing discussion on as part of our project with Public Knowledge,, was joined at the conference. In a point made by others as well, Qwest Deputy General Counsel Andy Crain highlighted that it would be a mistake to declare victory after the departure of FCC Chair Kevin Martin (the target of criticism by a House Majority Report, among others) and get back to talking about substance. After all, former Chairman Michael Powell, upon leaving the FCC four years ago, told those at this conference that the ex parte process–where firms file often cryptic comments at the last minute–was “out of control.” In that sense, Andy underscored the importance of focusing on what FTC Chair Bill Kovacic called in his opening address the questions of engineering–how government operates–as opposed to the more sexy ones of physics–what broad policy goals and concerns to pursue.

The conference bookended Brad’s opening thoughts with a very thoughtful comment from Pamela Passman, Microsoft’s Deputy General Counsel, who developed the concept of an interdependent Internet ecosystem. She identified the existence of an often underappreciated interdependence and set of interconnections between the different players and the different “layers” of the Internet–to use a metaphor and tool developed at previous conferences. In the case of behavioral advertising, for example, the imposition of rules at only one layer–say, the broadband provider–and not another–say, application and content providers–would fail to fully address any concerns about the practice and might well distort the relative profit opportunities available to the affected companies. And, of course, business relationships between players can influence the development of value-creation. The challenge, Passman thus suggested, is to develop public policies that recognize this interdependence as well as the concern noted by both Brad Feld and FTC Chair Bill Kovacic at the outset–that our regulatory institutions don’t always get the “dosage right.” For a great case in point, see the long legal history–going on 13 years now–of seeking to develop rules restricting the availability of pornography on the Internet.

The suggestion that we need to develop a more ecosystem-based analysis–and a means of ending the war of words between “broadband” and the “Internet” (see Link Hoewing’s take on that point)–is fueling my imagination about how to develop the agenda for next year’s conference. Some great themes suggested in this respect include Industry Structure and Opportunities for Innovation (including concerns about network access and the availability of wireless spectrum for new applications and innovators), The Challenges of Forging Cooperative Relationships (from developing principles for copyright holders to support user-based content to a framework for governing peering between Internet backbone providers), and Business Model and Policy Challenges Related to the Content Industries (will video content follow the music industries and the newspaper industry down a death spiral?; why are video games and ringtones growing markets?; how to define fair use and the first sale doctrine in a networked digital environment?). And, of course, we intend to introduce the initial results from our New Models of Governance project, which was explained at the outset of the conference. For those interested in helping to shape the agenda, reflections on all of the above are most welcome. And for those who missed the conference, the video of the whole event is available here. Thanks again to all–the key organizers (Anna and Blake), the students on the Journal, the participants, the attendees, and our ranks of supporters–who helped make this event possible.

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