04/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the Internet, it's 1904

By Don Abelson, Jonathan Aronson & Jonathan Sallet*

Imagine you're a physicist and it's 1904. The universe is a confusing place. What you know to be true is increasingly out of step with Newtonian principles that you revere. For example, examination of the supposed "ether" has delivered anomalous results; the speed of light is confusingly absolute; and the motion of Mercury isn't quite what it is predicted to be.

But wait one year. As we all know, 1905 introduced a new approach, Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity, which, once physicists began to grasp it, replaced confusion with consistency.

Today, efforts to propose a unified theory of Internet governance confront the same kind of problems faced by pre-Einsteinian physicists. The ability of policymakers to address each of the following four forms of confusion will define the success of international Internet policy in the coming decade.

Mismatch Between Theory and Reality. The theory of governance is geographic -- sovereign nations are supposed to control events within their borders and, within a federal system, states are to regulate activities closest to homes. Of course, the architecture of the Internet is inherently non-geographic -- indeed, its original design was premised on the desire to ensure redundant geographic paths for information in the event of nuclear attack on any single network node. But today's Internet sends and stores information in ways that have less and less relevance to national borders - even as the geography of hardware delivers new vulnerabilities to extra-territorial attack. Thus, borders become both more and less important to the operation of the Internet.

The Vacuum of (Political Space). Quantum physics, to which Einstein also made an important contribution, taught us that there is no such thing as a perfect vacuum; particles can materialize and de-materialize at random. If quantum mechanics abhors a vacuum, just imagine a room full of political leaders. Thus, although the consistent U.S. policy towards international Internet governance since the 1990's has stressed freedom from over-regulation, a series of international efforts are inclined to resolve the "mismatch" described above by creating a more far-reaching, or entirely new, form of global oversight. The upcoming International Telecommunication Union meeting, the Plenipotentiary Conference, to be held in Mexico in October, 2010 and the 2011 APEC meeting with the U.S. in the chair are likely forums for discussion of the desirability of various approaches to international governance. An alternative, captured in Elinor Ostrom's Nobel-Prize-winning work, considers collective action within communities of users as a mechanism to establish norms, monitor compliance, and enforce outcomes. The International Governance Forum, similarly, has provided a useful venue for dialogue without mandated outcomes. Thus, U.S. policymakers can look towards the use of diverse mechanisms, including the World Trade Organization, backed by governmental action as required, to fill the political vacuum without deterring innovation, investment and openness.

Many Experiments Running At Once. The churning of new data was, of course, responsible for both the confusion of 1904 and the theory of 1905. Today we see dramatically falling prices for hardware, software, and services, the growing ubiquity of mobile devices, and the increasing modularity of all of the building blocks of information and communications technology, from networks to terminals to software. These trends are fueling experiments in the creation of value through the development of innovative business models in both for-profit and non-profit organizations, and through traditional and relatively new means of organizing the creation of products and services, including the open-source model. What's striking is the fervor by which established firms are looking for new roles to play -- think of Google selling wireless devices, Apple creating semiconductors, or social networks acting increasingly as search engines. These are all business model experiments and, like any form of business activity, they can be incented, discouraged, promoted, or hampered by governance.

Uncertainty in a Complicated, Fast-Changing World. Quantum physics tells us, to Einstein's profound intellectual disquiet, that the universe is a fundamentally unpredictable place. Is that what the Internet is like as well? In other words, does it connect so many people and devices, through so many different possible connections, with so many opportunities for the creation of various forms of information, and using multiple mechanisms of technology located in different places, that governance principles must live with its unpredictability as a basic principle of action? And, if that is true, how can governance best be both predictable and flexible enough to be effective, especially given the wildly diverse political, commercial, and cultural interests within and across countries?

Einstein's theories introduced a new equilibrium, one that has evolved and endured now for more than a century. Of course, special and general relativity didn't answer all questions. (Stubborn problems, like the integration of gravity and quantum physics remain.) But they have introduced intellectual stability of a sort.

Innovation and creativity that drive the Internet are dynamic, not static. So, it is unlikely that the Internet, like the Universe, will ever reach a stable equilibrium.

In recent conversations in Washington D.C. that were hosted by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the Aspen Institute, non-governmental, private-sector and government representatives concurred that the policy of governance must recognize, be compatible, and support the evolution of Internet - a world that is growing cheaper, more ubiquitous, and increasingly modular as the Net expands, evolves, and re-forms in various combinations of value.

The challenge for policymakers will be to respect that very unpredictability. To do that, policymakers around the globe must take up the intellectual challenge of looking for a dynamic "theory of enough" that would encourage overarching international goals, such as deployment, openness, innovation, and investment, against the good and bad outcomes that the Internet can yield on its own, to construct a global approach to governance. More than anything, it would be bring a harmonized, flexible approach that is suited to dynamic change and conscious of how its application, in theory and fact, would help bring greater clarity and focus to the four forces of confusion.

*Don Abelson is the principal of Sudbury International, LLC; Jonathan Aronson is Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California; Jonathan Sallet is Managing Director of the Glover Park Group. The views expressed here are those of the authors alone. The authors thank Caroline Langdale for her editorial assistance.