Internet Invariants – things worth fighting for

Leslie Daigle, Chief Internet Technology Officer of the Internet Society (ISOC) talked about the Society’s eight “Internet invariants” in the closing plenary session of TERENA’s Networking Conference 2012. The invariants are key features of the Internet that make it such a good platform for innovation and whose loss might harm the network’s ability to support unexpected developments in future. To stress how important this is, Leslie asked whether the originators of Twitter, Facebook or even the web would have been able to persuade bankers or venture capitalists to invest in their idea? The Internet as it was then, and mostly still is, meant they didn’t have to – they only needed to persuade users to adopt it.

At present discussion of the Internet’s uniqueness tends to focus on technical principles such as “end-to-end” or “smart edge/dumb middle”; this can result in policy makers and technologists debating which technology to choose to implement a policy (e.g. whether to block illegal websites using DNS or BGP), rather than whether the policy itself is a good idea. ISOC has consciously tried to move away from this into expressions of policy choices, whose consequences both policy makers and technologists should be able to appreciate and debate. The resulting invariants are summarised as Global reach and integrity; General purpose; Permissionless Innovation; Openness/Accessibility (to consume and contribute); Interoperability; Collaboration; Building Block Technologies; No Permanent Favourites.

As an example of how these can be used to discuss very high level policies Leslie gave the example of Governments’ frequent wish to apply physical geography (and jurisdiction) to the Internet. This can arise in both positive (enforcing our laws on our Internet) and negative (excluding others from enforcing their laws on our Internet) forms. A recent draft EU paper suggesting a “digital Schengen boundary”, which appears to have been sithdrawn when the consequences were realised, may have contained both! Considering the effect on the invariants suggests that this is simply the wrong way to think about the problem – applying national borders would constrain Permissionless innovation and Collaboration; remove Global Integrity; might, depending on the country, challenge Openness and create (local) Permanent Favourites. Although the resulting network might retain Interoperability, General Purpose and Building Block Technology at a technical level, in practice it would be a series of national islands, with communication between them possible but severely limited.

The invariants can also be used to discuss the importance of technical issues, such as the exhaustion of IPv4 addresses discussed by Geoff Huston earlier in the conference. The measures being adopted to maximise use of the few remaining addresses, rather than manage an orderly transition to IPv6, threaten Permissionless innovation, Interoperability, General Purpose and Global Reach, as well as declaring IPv4 to be a Permanent Favourite.

On a brighter note, the continuing history of publishing on the Internet shows what can be achieved so long as the invariants are protected. Gopher was replaced by the web, which enabled Google, amazon, Facebook and Twitter and now supports everything from revolution to knitting. All were developed at the edge of the network, not in the laboratories of network providers or large companies. Indeed now even those edge technologists may have lost control – the success or failure of a new Internet service now depends on the choice of millions of users. Which is a good thing: there never should be a master-plan for the Internet.

By Andrew Cormack

I'm Chief Regulatory Advisor at Jisc, responsible for keeping an eye out for places where our ideas, services and products might raise regulatory issues. My aim is to fix either the product or service, or the regulation, before there's a painful bump!

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