It’s the Architecture, Mr. Chairman.

Lawrence Lessig

The Internet has a constitution. Its architec-
ture is this constitution — the way the net is
coded, its design, the principles that govern its
control. Like any constitution, this architecture
embeds certain values. These values have con-
sequences. In the case of the Internet, they
have produced the greatest space of innovation
that we have seen this century.

We are about to see the first great violation of
this constitution. FCC Chairman William
Kennard is about to approve it. With the
merger of AT&T and MediaOne, the FCC will
permit a consolidation that will in effect alter a
fundamental feature of the Internet’s design.
And with this alteration, the FCC will allow a
threat to the innovation of the Internet.

The value at stake is a design principle called
“end-to-end.” First described by network archi-
tects Jerome Saltzer, David Reed, and David
Clark, this principle counsels that a network
build complexity at its ends (where the users
are), and keep the middle simple and clear. As
Jerome Saltzer puts it, “don’t force any service,
feature, or restriction on the customer; his ap-
plication knows best what features it needs,
and whether or not to provide those features
itself.” It is the user that gets to choose how
the network will be used. Not the network

End-to-end was first adopted for technical rea-
sons. But it has had a competitive conse-
quence. By remaining neutral among the ways
that the internet might be used, the net has
inspired an extraordinary range of applications
that otherwise would not have existed. For ex-
ample, had the internet been optimized for in-
ternet telephony, contrary to end-to-end, as
Reed/Saltzer/Clark have observed, then the
protocols for the world wide web could not have
been implemented. A commitment to neutral-
ity made that innovation possible.

This commitment is about to change. When the
merger of AT&T and MediaOne is complete,
AT&T and its affiliates will oversee a
broadband cable network that will cover some
80% of the residential broadband market. That
network will be part of the Internet, but it will
not be architected according to the principle of
end-to-end. Instead, the network will give
AT&T and its affiliates the power to discrimi-
nate in the service it will provide, by limiting
users to the ISP of AT&T’s choice. It will be the
owner of the network, not the user, or the in-
novator, that gets to decide how the network
gets used.

The threat of this discrimination is great. Us-
ers will not be free to use the Internet for the
full range of internet services; the cable system
will pick which internet services the user gets.
Already users are not allowed more than 10
minutes of streaming video at a time; already
they are not permitted to set up their own
servers. Thus, already the cable companies are
doing something the network has not before
seen: choosing how the net will be served,
rather than allowing the ends to choose for

This change will disrupt the environment for
innovation. It will threaten innovation in this
newest market on the Internet: When the own-
ers of the network, rather than the users, get
to choose how the network will be used, inno-
vations that threaten the owners of the net-
work won’t be allowed.

We’ve seen all this before. When Paul Baran,
an early architect of what we would come to
call a packet-switching design, presented a
RAND Corporation proposal for what was in
essence the internet — in 1964 — AT&T
stopped it. As AT&T’s Jack Osterman said of a
plan ‘First it can’t possibly work, and if it did,
damned if we are going to allow the creation of
a competitor to ourselves.”

Innovators will understand this, as they decide
whether to invest in applications that threaten
the cable monopoly, or applications that chal-
lenge the telephone companies control over te-
lephony. Why waste time when the owner of
the network can simply disallow your competi-
tive design?

The FCC, however, seems resolved to do noth-
ing about this. “No regulation” is better than
defending end-to-end. The market will take
care of itself, the FCC assures us.

But this is an extraordinary misunderstanding
of the FCC’s role, and an extraordinary forget-
ting of history. It was the FCC that imposed
rules that opened the telephone network up; it
was an open and general-purpose telephone
network that permitted the experimentation

that created the internet. AT&T didn’t volun-
tarily choose to create an open network; the
government made them do it. And because the
government did, the innovation that is the In-
ternet was made possible.

No one can say for certain what effect violating
this principle of end-to-end will have. No doubt
there are many contexts where changes to the
architecture are already threatening end-to-
end. But when tinkering with a basic architec-
tural feature of a network that has produced
the greatest boom in recent history, we should
at least be cautious, and should understand
our roots. The burden should be on those who
would change the constituting values of this
space to prove that their change will not harm
innovation. AT&T has not met that burden.

It’s the architecture, Mr. Chairman. If it ain’t
broke, don’t break it.

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