Who Should Govern the Internet?
Later today, I'll deliver a speech at an event hosted by the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. The new Center is committed to "developing data-driven scholarship to enhance understanding of technology's legal, economic, social, and governance ramifications." I'm grateful for their invitation to discuss a timely and important topic: the right role for government, and for other institutions, in governing the Internet.
Over the last decade, the Internet and Internet Protocols have been at the center of almost every new product and innovation we have developed at Comcast. Millions of Americans think of Comcast as "the cable company." And that's OK, because those are our roots and we're proud of them. But Comcast has also become America's largest Internet Service Provider and built one of the world's largest IP networks. So making the Internet work well in the U.S. and globally is a vital concern for us.
While we already take it for granted, the Internet is a miracle. It is an unrivaled engineering marvel built through a decentralized set of standards agreed to by network operators worldwide. Billions of bytes traverse the Internet every day, and governments (with some notable and frequently unfortunate exceptions) have very little to do with its operation. Globally, the Internet largely governs itself through organizations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (the IETF). Over the years, we have participated in this engineering-driven forum to help us deploy innovations in our network such as DNSSEC, IPv6, and our Constant Guard security platform.
We have found the process at the IETF to be transparent and consensus-based. In making decisions about how to operate our high-speed Internet services, we are guided by these global principles and practices. The tone is set by those best suited to make these decisions -- engineers, whose primary agenda is to advance the overall societal welfare by making the Internet work well.
The more important the Internet becomes, the more discussion, debate and pressure grows for more government involvement. In my talk at Brookings, I will suggest a path that relies primarily on the consensus-based self-governance model that has typified the Internet since its founding as a better alternative (although I also acknowledge the extraordinary consensus -- including support by Comcast, the rest of the cable industry, and Verizon and AT&T that has developed around a legislative approach pursued by Congressman Waxman).
We are very pleased to be among the founding members of the new Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group, or BITAG, which will bring together ISPs, equipment and software companies, content companies, and representatives of the Internet community, including academics and Internet users, to tackle the hard questions and build toward consensus on the most pressing Internet issues of the day. BITAG will be available to advise federal agencies on the technological aspects of Internet policy issues, and anybody with a legitimate stake in a network management or other technical issue can contribute to a solution. There is only one condition: don't send lawyers to BITAG's technical working sessions. Send engineers or other technologists ready to deal with these questions at an engineering level -- in a non-adversarial setting.
Now by no means am I suggesting a libertarian approach to Internet policy in America. Self-governance does not mean chaos. All of us benefit from having a free and open Internet, and maintaining that is a legitimate government concern. The only question is "how." Just before Congress recessed for the mid-term elections, Congressman Waxman made a commendable effort to build stakeholder consensus around a workable approach on these issues. The proposal was supported by a diverse array of stakeholders, including the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Public Knowledge, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, the entire cable industry (including Comcast) as well as AT&T and Verizon, labor and civil rights groups, and many players in the tech and venture capital communities. I think this showed that reasonable minds can reason together, mutually support an appropriate governmental role in this space, and I hope that spirit prevails.
Failing that, the risk is that the vitality of this brilliant resource, created by engineers, will be litigated and legislated away piece by piece, by lawyers, lobbyists and organized activists with political agendas. They are all entitled to their opinions, of course. But opinion is not a basis for national Internet policy. It must be grounded in engineering principles, based on facts and data, consistent with the public interest and reinforced with the benefit of consensus.