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December 18, 2010

David Reed on the neutrality of the Net’s code

Barbara van Schewick has posted two brilliant posts (1 2) about the practical effects removing Net neutrality would have on innovation. Now David Reed, one of the authors of the original argument for the Net’s neutral architecture, has responded, in agreement, but with a shading of emphasis.

David’s point (as I understand it) is that we should remember that Net neutrality isn’t something that we need the law to impose upon the Net. Rather, the Net was architected from the beginning to be neutral. The Internet as a protocol explicitly is designed to move packets of bits from source to destination without knowing what information they contain, what type of application they support, or who created them. All packets move equally in those regards.

So, David asks, “[W]hat do we need from the ‘law’ when the ‘code’ was designed to do most of the job?” After all, he writes, “merely requiring those who offer Internet service to implement the Internet design as it was intended – without trying to assign meaning to the data content of the packets – would automatically be application agnostic.”

In particular: We don’t need a complex rule defining “applications” in order to implement an application agnostic Internet. We have the basis of that rule – it’s in the “code” of the Internet. What we need from the “law” is merely a rule that says a network operator is not supposed to make routing decisions, packet delivery decisions, etc. based on contents of the packet.

David along with Barbara disputes the claim that the need to manage traffic to avoid congestion justifies application-specific discrimination. The Net, David says, was built with traffic management in mind:

… network congestion control is managed by having the routers merely detect and signal the existence of congestion back to the edges of the network, where the sources can decide to re-route traffic and the traffic engineers can decide to modify the network’s hardware connectivity. This decision means that the only function needed in the network transport itself is application-agnostic – congestion detection and signalling.

So, the only law we need, David is saying, is that which lets the Net be the Net.