What is the most important feature of the Internet? Dis-intermediation!

What is the most important feature of the Internet? Dis-intermediation!

When asked what I believe is the most important feature of the Internet, I boil it down to one thing: dis-intermediation.

One often discussed feature is open vendor-neutral standards which allow software from any number of for-profit or non-profit projects to interoperate with each other. What makes this feature important is the fact that there is no single vendor or other organization that controls this network or acts as an intermediary between senders (producers, creators, publishers, etc) and receivers (audiences, consumers, etc) in the communication. The networks before the Internet were all proprietary and the individual components were created by the same company.

One of the central design principles of TCP/IP is the end-to-end principle where you had a dumb network with smart endpoints. This is what allowed there to be innovation at these endpoints that did not require the permission of the providers of the underlying network in order to be created. Whether it was Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP) to exchange email or Hyper-Text Transport Protocol (HTTP) to exchange web-pages, these were all innovations that did not require changes to the underlying network, or permission from any intermediary. You only needed to have agreement between two peers at the edges of the network that they were going to speak a specific protocol. This is another form of dis-intermediation

I believe the most important forward-looking policy direction we as Canadians can take is to support dis-intermediation, allowing Canadians to talk directly with other Canadians without having intermediaries with their own special interests able to control this communication. I believe we need Government to move away from focusing attention on highly intermediated broadcast and broadcast-like systems, and put more energy into supporting and promoting dis-intermediated communications networks like those facilitated by the Internet.

When I look at the type of changes to public policy that most upset me, it is those that seek to re-intermediate communications. When I look at the recent Heritage Interim Report on copyright I see the imposition of two types of harmful re-intermediation: creating government protected technology intermediaries in the form of Digital Rights Management (DRM), and government created business intermediaries in the form of statutory or extended licenses.

While DRM is advertised as a method for copyright holders to enforce their copyright license agreements, it is really a method to impose a new type of intermediary in the communication between creators and their audiences. It is an attempt to duplicate over Internet wiring a broadcast-style configuration where creators can only communicate with audiences through a powerful intermediary. While this can be claimed to make copyright enforcement easier as these intermediaries do control these communications channels, you also have the huge cost of having powerful intermediaries able to dictate cultural policy.

Unlike broadcast intermediaries where monitoring is relatively simple, DRM communications are more secret. Regulators must use far stronger regulation of DRM companies than broadcast companies in order to achieve equivalent public policy goals. With policy makers distracted by the brochures of DRM companies that falsely claim that copyright holders will be in control, they are not yet setting up the policy infrastructure to regulate DRM. My hope is that this policy gap will be short lived and we will not have irreparable damage to Canadian culture.

If dis-intermediated new-media is allowed to survive, the ability to have innovation in business models is also possible. We can see this innovation with the growth of Free/Libre and Open Soruce Software (FLOSS), Creative Commons and Open Access initiatives. These initiatives offer a wider variety of expressions of the material and moral rights in copyright, providing for a full spectrum of business models. In many cases these initiatives facilitate the development of public goods where development is collaborative and development resources are arranged up-front rather than (theoretically) paid post-development through royalties. Many of the problems of traditional royalty-based business models such as welfare losses and audiences infringing copyright are solved.

While we need governments to support a full spectrum of business models to allow these modern initiatives to grow, policy has been moving in the opposite direction. Royalty-based collective societies are being allowed to license works outside of their repertoire and in ways where the audiences are not given the choice to opt-in, effectively eradicating alternative business models. Collective societies should only be allowed to operate in an environment when both copyright holders and licensees are given a choice about participation.

The public "no membership required" part of the Internet is only possible through an implied royalty-free verbatim license. While the vast majority of the content on the Internet was created using Open Access methodologies that are compatible with this implied license, organizations representing legacy business models such as Access Copyright have gone to the government to have their business model imposed on the Internet. As demonstrated by the Heritage report, they have thus far convinced some members of parliament that this is an appropriate direction to go.

I believe it is possible to turn the government around. While a dis-intermediated Internet still exists we must make use of it to organize and help educate policy makers. DRM manufactures will go to government and ask to be government protected technology intermediaries,and legacy organizations like Access Copyright will go to government and ask to be business model intermediaries. The Government should know why they should strongly say NO to these intermediaries on behalf of all Canadians. If we are to have any cultural sovereignty in the future it will only be if cultural policy is in the hands of Canadians, not these old-media, old-economy intermediaries.