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Linking Internet Architecture to Innovation

Barbara van Schewick’s recently published book Internet Architecture and Innovation is a modern-day Christmas Carol, with the ghost of the Internet past meeting a present and future much constrained by tinkering. Written for a broad, interdisciplinary audience, this is not an overly technical text. It is, rather, a guide through the history of the Internet that shows us the importance of structure and design, how the Internet influences innovation and economic growth, and how changes to its architecture ultimately can thwart both. Van Schewick’s extensive research and analysis help the lay and the expert reader alike understand why the original design and architecture of the Internet were responsible for the extraordinary burst of innovation and entrepreneurialism the world experienced over the last few decades.

Book cover of Internet Architecture and Innovation by Barbara van Schewick.

But network providers are now changing the Internet’s architecture to advance their commercial interests—and not for the good of users. Van Schewick offers a clear explanation for policymakers of why we need government intervention to maintain and restore features that network providers are changing. Hers is a plea for government action so that innovation on the Internet can continue—and the untapped potential of the future of the Internet can be realized.

Stories of Internet startups abound, and founders have become celebrities to aspiring entrepreneurs. Take the story of two Stanford PhD students with an idea. They discovered that an algorithm could be used to order Internet search results and deliver results much better than those from existing search engines. They tried to sell or license their technology but couldn’t find a buyer. Then they tried to start a company but couldn’t secure venture capital funding. So they went forward without investment, running their company on a shoestring budget while in development. They named their search engine “Google” and launched a company that today is worth more than $36 billion and employs more than 20,000 people worldwide.

Providing many similar examples, van Schewick shows how the very architecture of the Internet allowed a startup business culture to thrive. But timing is everything. Tomorrow’s innovators may face a cost barrier that didn’t exist then, that would likely have prevented the now famous Sergey Brin and Larry Page from pursuing the venture on their own. They were, after all, students with limited resources apart from their ingenuity and gumption.

“In today’s Internet, technology allows network providers to charge application providers an access fee—a fee for the right to reach the network provider’s Internet service customers,” says van Schewick, associate professor of law and electrical engineering (by courtesy) and faculty director of the Center for Internet and Society, who shared her research with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this year in its workshop, “Approaches to Preserving the Open Internet.”

Van Schewick identifies four elements in the original Internet that fostered application innovation: developers were free to choose which applications they wanted to pursue, users were free to choose which application they wanted to use, network providers could not interfere with either of these choices, and—pivotally—application innovation could be done at very low cost, permitting a large and diverse group of innovators to realize their ideas for new applications. “Allowing network providers to levy access charges breaks the mechanism of innovation at its core,” she says. Van Schewick examines applications developed by students (Google and Yahoo!), by users (Apache Web Server software), and by others whose original ideas did not have significant financial backing. “In a world where network providers can charge access charges, these applications would not have been able to get off the ground,” she says.

Van Schewick also shows us how innovation is often sparked by industry outsiders and how the architecture of the Internet encourages or discourages that too. Classified advertising was revolutionized by Craigslist and eBay—not by insiders in the newspaper business. Music distribution was revolutionized by BitTorrent, iTunes, Kazaa, and Napster—not by the music industry. But as startups mature into multimillion (or billion) dollar companies, van Schewick observes, their interest in innovation changes too—either because they do not recognize opportunities, or because they are not interested in realizing them. Here again, she explains, failing to adopt regulation that keeps the costs of innovation low will narrow the number and range of companies left to innovate—to the detriment of society.

“There are many more applications out there waiting to be developed. And as much as I like Google, or Amazon, or Yahoo!, I don’t think that they will be able or even be interested in identifying or developing them,” says van Schewick. “Established companies have very different backgrounds, cost structures, and motivations that let them focus on different applications than those that low-cost innovators would focus on. These companies will identify only some opportunities for innovation and find only some of them worth developing. We will get more innovation by having both low-cost and mature companies innovate than if only mature companies do.”

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One Response to “Linking Internet Architecture to Innovation”

  1. Sam says:

    I don’t think we’ll see Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc develop some of the next biggest applications – however they will probably acquire them!

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