If It Ain't Broke, Don't Try To Fix It

11/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Leslie Harris President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology

[The Internet is at a crossroads. Down one path lies a future where digital technology enhances constitutional freedoms; spurs innovations in expression and entrepreneurship; and fulfills its ultimate promise of connecting and empowering the world. Down the other? A future where the Internet is turned against users; where government spying runs unchecked, and where innovation is stifled by a closed and locked system, controlled by a handful of entrenched players. The next president will play a key role in determining which path we take. This is the fourth in a series of entries over the next couple weeks about the critical technology and civil liberties choices facing the next president of the United States. You can read more on our complete transition guide for next president.]

The Internet has fostered an astounding array of services and technologies that nobody saw coming. This success isn't due to some remarkable string of coincidences. It's a direct result of the Internet's unique open nature. The technology allows virtually anyone with a good idea to thrive and succeed, because rolling out the next big thing doesn't require the cooperation or approval of any government bureaucrats or corporate suits. It's easy and cheap to get something launched -- and if users like it, the sky is the limit.

Given the proven benefits of this open model, it is confounding how many people, both in government and industry, seem willing to start tinkering with it. Perhaps they take the Internet's fundamental openness as a given, kind of like Republican strategists treat Idaho or Kansas during presidential elections. But the design and policy decisions that make the Internet so open to innovators are not set in stone.

One troubling development has been the suggestion by some network operators that they want the freedom to favor some websites or online services over others. The idea is that the network operator might charge content providers for special "prioritized" access to subscribers, or might limit the delivery speed of applications it thinks are bandwidth hogs.

Think about what this would mean. Facebook, YouTube and even Google were able to go ahead and launch their products without worrying about how network operators would treat their traffic. But if network operators start monkeying with delivery quality, the next generation of innovators won't be so lucky. They could be forced to expend time and resources working out arrangements with various network operators to ensure high quality access to users. So much for an easy and low-cost launch. The next set of game-changing new tools and services might never leave the laptop.

Other threats come from advocates and policymakers pursuing various legitimate policy goals -- for example, protecting against copyright infringement, ensuring convenient intercept access for law enforcement, or promoting a robust 911 system -- whose proposed "solutions" would burden network operators with design mandates that could stifle innovation.

The next President is likely to face key choices about whether to support the Internet's open model or allow its gradual erosion. Given that weighty responsibility, the next President must:

• Support legislation to ensure that broadband network operators will not undermine the open Internet by playing favorites and discriminating among specific online content, services, and applications;
• Oppose government technology mandates that will interfere with privacy, innovation, or competition;
• Promote balanced approaches to digital copyright policy that respect both the rights of creators and the critical public interest in preserving interactivity, innovation, and free expression in the new digital media; and
• Pursuing policies to make broadband Internet access available more widely and at world-class speeds.

Safeguarding the robust and innovative nature of the Internet may not seem like a top priority at a time when the economic crisis is sucking all of the air out of Washington. But as the nation looks for paths towards recovery, we cannot afford to put at risk a proven and dynamic engine of growth and economic opportunity.