Internet Freedom vs International Institutions

At the conference, Alex Lightman told me about the new politics of Internet standards committees. In the old days, the designer of Internet protocols had to make tradeoffs that were largely technical in nature, they largely designed with the interest of vaguely freedom oriented people’s in mind. Today the parties to these sorts of discussions include people like Chinese Intelligence who are more interested in improving their ability to track users and do damage to the US in case of war, etc. I guess the Internet is all grown up, but this new environment is a little scary.

For example, SMTP, the protocol that governs how email is delivered on the Internet was written in an era when bandwidth was in such short supply but the time it took for a packet to round trip between two internet nodes was relatively short. SMTP is a brilliantly designed protocol for such an environment. However, today the opposite is true. Bandwidth is cheap but round trips are expensive! If John Postel, the author of SMTP, were alive and writing a mail protocol for today’s Internet, I have no doubt he would make different design decisions, but that these decisions would be in the interests of the Internet’s end users.

The problem is that the people in charge of designing the next generation of Internet protocols are NOT optimizing for the needs of end-users. They are optimizing for state control and state interests. It is unclear whether the interests of end-users are adequately represented on the various design committees and this is dangerous. We don’t want IPv6 to make it easy to track the location its users. We don’t want next generation name services to make it easy for a government to shut down operation of a web site it doesn’t like!

I’m not entirely sure what needs to be done here. Alex Lightman is trying to raise awareness, but I think we may need more….


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