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Can self-regulation alone of the Internet work?

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I attended an event at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC  on Monday which took on the question, “what should be the government’s role in Internet governance?”   The consensus was that self-regulation alone cannot work.  Customer input and response must be taken into account and considered as key drivers.   Further, the government has a role as overseer and can step in and respond in instances of market failure and egregious bad behavior.  What would be the basis of that authority is up in the air still.  In sum, the debate over open internet and net neutrality does not have to drag out into infinity.

Rather, all of the stakeholders, minus the lawyers, should get together to hash out the details.

A VP at Comcast, David Cohen, addressed the audiences at the start of the event and introduced the launch of a new body, a new broadband technical advisory group called BITAG (“Bee-Tag”).  The group would  be dominated by engineers focused on ways to manage the network that makes up the Internet, and would exclude lawyers, lobbyists and organized activists, all of whom Cohen said do not help much when consensus is needed.

I’ve always said the net neutrality debate was a contract issues, but Cohen disagrees and said it is an engineering and network management issue that can only be resolved when all of the technical and engineering types get together and work out a solution to it.

During the event, I asked the panel to address how the investment community responds to government regulation;  and whether technology and innovation would preclude the necessity for government regulation.

They didn’t give me an answer.  Rather, they simply reiterated what I already knew that investors are driven by certainty.

Cohen and the other panelists  Erik Garr, a partner at Diamond management and technology consultant, who was one of the architects of the FCC’s National Broadband plan  and General Counsel of the Aspen International Digital Economic Accords (IDEA) project, Gary Epstein, also did not respond to the technology question at all.  So Cohen may have been right.

At bottom, Net Neutrality and open internet can be on its way to resolution so people the FCC can focus on other more important issues that have real and immediate tangible impact on the community of innovators, digital entrepreneurs and others working in the broadband space.

At top, the panelists’ lack of response to my question means  that Cohen is probably right; the technology, engineers, innovators may have been ignored for far too long.  It was an interesting standing-room only event.  I’m glad I made my way down to attend in person. You can catch the audio replay Here!

I also wrote about the experience for Politic365.com.  Check out my story at HERE!

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3 comments

  • Corporate representatives have to dodge questions about how investors have reacted to things, for fear of violating securities laws or hurting share value. But as an ISP who’s a sole proprietor, I can speak freely, and I can tell you: regulation kills investment. I had to buy out my investors when they perceived a real threat of “network neutrality” regulations. The investors knew that such regulations would prevent us from remaining financially viable.

  • @ Jeneba: Are you asking what is the basis of the gov’t’s authority to regulate broadband, or of its regulatory authority in general? Regardless, not even a free-market scheme for broadband regulation is possible without the participation of attorneys.

    The issue, however, is government’s level of involvement in regulating broadband. ISPs, like Comcast, would prefer it be minimal to non-existent. And while that position is understandable, the question then becomes if minimal or no regulation of broadband is in the best interests of the public. Or more specifically, what form should broadband regulation assume? For it’s the consumer whom American gov’t exists to protect.

    @ Brett: The panel had academics and at least 1 attorney. Their response to Jeneba’s question was both accurate and succinct: investors are driven by certainty. Once broadband regulation is determined, whether or not it includes language on non-discrimination, investors will adjust their behavior(s) accordingly. And it will remain incumbent upon entrepreneurs like you to demonstrate viable business models respectful of those regulations.

  • Which is the lesser of two evils? It’s a bit of a farce that Comcast would be leading such a discussion. This is the company that is standing in the shadow of its own drawn out battle over monopolizing the content space and potential manipulation of the Internet access pipes. Of course it wouldn’t desire government oversight and regulations. At the same time, the government has demonstrated itself to be quite an untrustworthy regulator. Check the recent history of the ongoing scams and shams in the Wall Street and ratings agencies debacle. At the end of the day, even the FCC, which can’t seem to figure out how to comply with a court order to produce an annual report on minority media ownership, isn’t even a trustworthy agency. I say let the Internet be the fabled “free market” that doesn’t really exist.

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