I’m preparing for teaching a class on Monday on the question of whether we’re headed for an all-IP future. It’s focused primarily on the decision-points that a policy-maker in a developing country might face today and in the medium-term future. A first cut at notes are here.
As a member of the parliament I would tell the political guru to get lost. It’s an insane idea that people are to finance the health-care by paying for their phones or Internet access. If there is a need to subsidy the health system, the normal way to do it, is by taxes. Therefore, I would just sell the telcom to the highest bidder and I would deregulate the market so that new technologies can enter. The only thing that would make me hesitate in case of some countries is international relations. Some developing countries might feel reluctant to sell strategic public assets to foreign powerful buyers. Just to take an example from Central and Eastern Europe, I know how surprised were some decision-makers in Baltic states when they learned that the railroads, petroleum industry etc. after being privatized are taken over by foreign firms under influence of the Russian government. This seems a powerful political factor that the decision-makers in such countries are likely to take into account. Naturally, it’s difficult to come up with a general rule here, it depends on the relations between given countries.
I won’t be in class tonight so I’m responding online to the questions you’ve raised in your blog post for class 11. I’ll be looking forward to watching the webcast in a couple of days.
Class 11 – response to J Palfrey notes
The answer to your first question is that this is the world that is coming into being – an all digital communication future. The question for society is how we are going to deal with it. The possibilities of creating a new and peaceful civilization across cultures and other societal divides is both exhilarating and an important stage where global society can emerge and improve its condition. We need to communicate with each other to make this vision a reality and the all digital communication infrastructure will assist society in that effort.
Anyone who has a choice of using digital communications over telephony knows how much easier and less expensive it is to communicate with each other. This is especially true in global relationships. I work with a Brazilian attorney who founded a global network of attorneys (www.lexuniversal.com) and we regularly use instant messaging to conduct our business. This entrepreneurial activity would be prohibitively expensive if we used regular long-distance calls. My conclusion is that voice over the internet is the future, and it is also at hand for many of us. Are we not at the time when the telecommunication companies need to let telephony go, and provide other value?
In Larry Lessig’s new online book, he tells the story of the Causby’s, farmers who were the first ones in the US to confront a change in the legal landscape caused by the technology fault lines of their time, the airplane. No longer would US property rights include the air above the owner’s land – a centuries old property right vanished in just one Supreme Court decision. The decision affected everyone’s property rights. Technology drove that change in the law in 1945. It is no different today. Civil society has no reason to support outmoded communication systems. Instead, we have the opportunity to use new digital communication systems which will allow us to build global communities which are based on a “to be developed” shared rule of law. This is both the opportunity and challenge of our time for civil society.
As for question 2 – the technical impediments to the system: I’ve read some of the materials on the technical specifications and leaving aside policy and politics, it doesn’t seem that building the next generation IP is an impossibility. The W3C group which creates and manages internet standards has a great track record of accomplishing engineering feats. I just heard Vint Cerf speak at the ABA spring meeting, and it sure seems that there are quite a few very committed people at the controls who want to make IP work.
Technical ability alone won’t get the job done, however. Ownership of key infrastructure assets will be debated. The question raised in the IXP reading about who should own some of the routers in developing countries – a for profit or non for profit organization was intriguing. But since this is not a technical issue, I’ll leave it alone for now.
What are the disruptions to society which will occur and how will we be transformed? In a nutshell, we will be creating global communities based on shared interests. Democracy will be adopted as a pattern of governance in these virtual communities, and eventually they will become powerful as they become trusted places to conduct most human interaction, especially commerce. Nation-state governments will have to become responsive to virtual communities in matters related to governance and dispute resolution. Corporations will have to stop their data mining activities as virtual communities become “infomediaries” – trusted gatekeepers for goods and services for its members which are given in exchange for information and other value supplied by the community and/or its members.
I saw an example of this recently, which was brought to my attention by Josh – at his sister’s college next year, the University is buying internet access which will be included within the tuition. So Abby won’t get a separate bill for internet access. If she buys extra services, she’ll be charged individually. So what used to be individual bills for internet access are instead going to be aggregated to a trusted 3rd party (the University) who will provide the service to its members (students, faculty and other stakeholders). Premium services on the internet will still result in individual bills.
Powerful telecommunication companies are stakeholders of the old way of doing business and will undergo their own transformation to become responsive to the new business models. A great deal of education and rebuilding of public trust will need to take place before civil society believes the new “story”. Most of what I read from around the world, and it is in evidence in our class from the viewpoint of the foreign lawyers, there is tremendous mistrust of both US companies, the US government, and the values represented by our form of capitalism. The IXP idea brings forth the concept of using non profit organizations to manage both the finances and the resource of the business of internet access. This is as much an acknowledgment of the need to rebuild public trust as it is to suggest that powerful telecommunications companies will have to provide new value adds to justify their investments in their infrastructure.
Now to the role of the parliamentarian. Clearly, the issue for the policy maker is balancing short term interests as against the long term benefits for society. To have allowed the state owned telco to gain such power over the executive branch creates real trust issues for the country’s government. If the executive depends upon revenues from its own bureaucratic agent for its survival, the terms of this agreement must be transparent and acceptable to members of civil society. In other words, there needs to be accountability to all segments of society, and in this way, the executive branch will regain its legitimacy and control over the telco revenues. As the telco transforms itself (whether it becomes privatized, or, part of its functions are ceded to a non-profit as in the case of the IXP plan) the telco must accept its fiduciary role because it plays a quasi governmental function (through the revenue base) in assuring the provision of health care to broad segments of society.
The US and EU, through public international law making bodies like the UN, should support the developing countries and assure that their own telecommunications companies operating in the private sector are not undermining these efforts. It is important that global society emerge, and this requires that the developing countries catch up with internet access to the levels of usage in the US and EU, and that there be a level playing field for all segments of society. This will increase economic prosperity globally in the long run and heal deep societal wounds caused by poverty in so much of the world.
The final question is about dispute resolution. Briefly, there will be many online dispute resolution providers which will arise, both similar and different from those resulting from ICANN’s UDRP. How the governance of this all comes about is the subject of its own paper. I believe that global virtual communities based on a shared rule of law will develop over time, and that these representatives of civil society, working with nation states and public international agencies, will develop trusted means of dispute resolution, mostly occurring online. International coordination will develop through a broad based education effort aimed at getting the people of the world to harmonize important rules of law around privacy, intellectual property, consumer protection and so on and figuring out how to resolve disputes when they occur.