ISPs, technologists, law enforcers and governments are wrangling over how the internet should be regulated, but it is obvious what is the best way forward, says Axel Pawlik.
The Digital Britain report proposed that ISPs should adopt a more active regulatory role to help curb piracy and the distribution of illegal content. Yet it is debatable whether ISPs are best placed to act as the gatekeepers of the internet, because the control they have over the networks is limited.
The main function of ISPs as regulators is to help law-enforcement agencies determine the source of illegal content more easily by monitoring connectivity data. In theory, ISPs could inspect every packet of data, but cybercriminals can conceal illegal content inside inconspicuous data packets. Monitoring content also raises obvious privacy issues.
Role of ISPs
ISPs should not police the content of internet traffic. They could act in a similar fashion to telephone companies, which keep track of dialled numbers without listening in on calls. Ultimately, it is technically impossible for ISPs to moderate and monitor everything that goes on in their networks.
It has also been proposed that national governments and the European Union take responsibility for internet regulation. But government-led processes can be inflexible, and traditional routes of legislation often take long to become law.
As a result, legislation cannot possibly hope to keep pace with innovation in the internet industry. Additionally, while national governments are able to restrict internet traffic to tackle criminal activities, such restrictions can easily be seen as an attack on civil rights. Because of the limitations of ISP and government-led internet governance, an open, bottom-up regulatory model is the only feasible way forward.
Open policy development
Industry-wide collaboration between ISPs, the technical community, supporting organisations, national governments and law-enforcement agencies helps ensure open and transparent policy development and regulation.
Governments should look after the interests of the public by taking an active role in the debates and policy-making processes of the internet community. They also need to work closely with the community to ensure an appropriate, flexible, regulatory framework is in place to help stimulate innovation and growth.
There are already examples in the internet industry of the problems over-regulation can produce. Afnic, the French registry for the .fr country code top-level domains, is a classic illustration of how regulation can impede growth.
At a time when the market for domain names around the world was growing strongly, registrations for .fr domain names were hampered by strict eligibility rules. A process of deregulation, started in 2004, saw a sharp and immediate increase in the market for .fr domain names.
Another example of how regulations can stand in the way of innovation is the failed rollout of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) protocol suite in 1977. Developed by international standards body the ISO and telecoms standardisation agency the ITU-T to standardise networking, OSI followed government-led predecessors such as Arpanet.
Its aim was to enable vendors with different proprietary network protocol suites to collaborate on common network standards, facilitating interoperability. However, OSI was never widely adopted because the ISO and ITU-T attempted to impose it on the internet community, who deemed it too costly and complicated to implement. Instead they opted for TCP and IP, on which the internet operates to this day.
Community and public benefit
An inherently open system such as the internet does not fit into a closed, heavily certified and regulated mould. As with open-source systems, both the community and the general public benefit from the openness of the internet, which stimulates innovation, access and diversity, as people are encouraged to experiment with different technologies.
This bottom-up, multi-stakeholder and self-regulatory approach will ultimately help safeguard the dynamic and responsible development of the internet.
Axel Pawlik is managing director of the Ripe NCC, an independent not-for-profit organisation that supports the infrastructure of the internet for Europe, the Middle East and parts of central Asia. While at the University of Dortmund, Pawlik contributed to the establishment of Unix networking as a publicly available service in Germany. He also founded EUnet Deutschland GmbH and developed it into one of the strongest EUnet networks in Europe.