Are there assumptions about the Internet architecture that no longer hold in a world where larger, more centralized entities provide big parts of the Internet service? If the world changes, the Internet and its technology/architecture may have to match those changes. It appears that level[ing] the playing field for new entrants or small players brings potential benefits. Are there technical solutions that are missing today?
These questions were one of many asked in a new Internet Draft published yesterday by former IETF Chair Jari Arkko on behalf of several Internet Architecture Board (IAB) members with the title “Considerations on Internet Consolidation and the Internet Architecture”:
The draft text is based on the IAB “Consolidation” blog post back in March 2018as well as a new post Jari and Brian Trammell have written for the APNIC and RIPE sites.
The abstract of the Internet Draft is:
Many of us have held a vision of the Internet as the ultimate distributed platform that allows communication, the provision of services, and competition from any corner of the world. But as the Internet has matured, it seems to also feed the creation of large, centralised entities in many areas. This phenomenon could be looked at from many different angles, but this memo considers the topic from the perspective of how available technology and Internet architecture drives different market directions.
The document discusses different aspects of consolidation including economic and technical factors. It ends with a section 3, “Actions,” that lists these questions and comments for discussion:
- Are there assumptions about the Internet architecture that no longer hold in a world where larger, more centralised entities provide big parts of the Internet service? If the world changes, the Internet and its technology/architecture may have to match those changes. It appears that level the playing field for new entrants or small players brings potential benefits. Are there technical solutions that are missing today?
- Assuming that one does not wish for regulation, technologies that support distributed architectures, open source implementations of currently centralised network functions, or help increase user’s control can be beneficial. Federation, for example, would help enable distributed services in situations where smaller entities would like to collaborate.
- Similarly, in an asymmetric power balance between users and services, tools that enable the user to control what information is provided to a particular service can be very helpful. Some such tools exist, for instance, in the privacy and tracking-prevention modes of popular browsers but why are these modes not the default, and could we develop them further?
- It is also surprising that in the age of software-defined everything, we can program almost anything else except the globally provided, packaged services. Opening up interfaces would allow the building of additional, innovative services, and better match with users’ needs.
- Silver bullets are rare, of course. Internet service markets sometimes fragment rather than cooperate through federation. And the asymmetric power balances are easiest changed with data that is in your control, but it is much harder to change when someone else holds it. Nevertheless, the exploration of solutions to ensure the Internet is kept open for new innovations and in the control of users is very important.
- What IETF topics that should be pursued to address some of the issues around consolidation?
- What measurements relating to the developments centralization or consolidation should be pursued?
- What research – such as distributed Internet architectures – should be driven forward?
These are all excellent questions, many of which have no easy answers. The draft encourages people interested in this topic to join the IAB’s “architecture-discuss” mailing list (open to anyone interested to subscribe) as one place to discuss this. This is all part of the ongoing effort by the IAB to encourage a broader discussion on these changes that have taken place to the way in which the Internet operates.
It is great to see this Internet Draft and I do look forward to the future discussions to see what actions or activities may emerge. It’s a challenging issue. As the draft discusses, there are both positive and negative aspects to consolidation of services – and the tradeoffs are not always clear.
This broader issue of consolidation or centralization has been an area of interest for us at the Internet Society for quite some time, dating back to our “future Internet scenarios” in 2008 and even before. More recently, our Global Internet Report 2017 on the “Paths to Our Digital Future” recognized the concerns – so much so that we decided to focus our next version of the GIR on this specific topic. (Read our 2018 GIR concept note).
Beyond the Global Internet Report, we’ve published articles relating to consolidation – and it’s been a theme emerging in several of our “Future Thinking” posts. I know that we will continue to write and speak about this theme because at its core it is about the future of what we want the Internet to be.
Please do join in these conversations. Share this Internet Draft with others. Share our 2017 Global Internet Report. Engage in the discussions. Help identify what the issues may be – and what solutions might be.
The Internet must be for everyone. Together we can #ShapeTomorrow.
Image credit: a cropped section of a photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash