Finding order in a contentious Internet
Author(s)Sowell, Jesse H., II (Jesse Horton)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Engineering Systems Division.
David D. Clark.
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This inquiry started with the simple question, "Who manages the Internet infrastructure and how?" Since, this question evolved into an evaluation of the routing system and the institutions that manage it. This institutional complex is referred to as the number resource system (NRS). NRS authority is contingent, rooted in consensus based knowledge assessment necessary to adapt apace with Internet growth. The efficiency with which observable negative externalities are remediated is a compelling entry point to this work. The Pakistan-YouTube story is a halcyon parable of "self-repair." Network operators recognized a global negative externality, traced it to the origin, and remediated the complicit networks in approximately three hours. To the casual observer, organic cooperation surfaced to remediate damages, then dissolved into the background noise of "normal operations." Remediation is far from organic; rather, it is a consequence of distinct rights and obligations amongst, and enforced by, NRS participants. Explaining the rationale and mechanics of "ad hoc" crisis management is the first contribution of this work. The early NRS comprised "close-knit yet loosely organized" communities created to 1) share operational knowledge (network operator groups, NOGs); 2) delegate unique network identifiers (Regional Internet Registries, RIRs); 3) create neutral markets for exchanging routes and traffic (Internet eXchanges, IXes); and 4) limit abusive messaging (anti-spam, later anti-abuse). Alongside Internet growth, NRS norms evolved into distinct institutions, replete with function-specific constitutional, collective choice, and operational rules for managing the knowledge commons and facilities supporting routing system function. The NRS institutions form a contingent social order, rooted in shared, authoritative images of system function and externalities management. NRS institutions collectively ensure participants common interests in the jointly provisioned routing system stability. The second contribution of this work explains NRS institutional structures and how the attendant rules keep pace with a high clockspeed Internet infrastructure. NRS institutions are characteristically, and necessarily, adaptive: each comprises a unique consensus process, animated by a diverse set of nominal competitors, that creates and adapts function-specific rules and processes contributing to routing system integrity. Consensus processes evaluate the performance of common resource management rules and, when-not if-necessary, adapt these rules to satisfy changing resource demands and patterns of use in the broader Internet infrastructure industry. Anticipation and evaluation in the consensus process are essential to adaptive capability, framed as a form of joint knowledge assessment. Moreover, diverse representation, comprising experts across industry sub-sectors, animated by constructive conflict amongst these experts, mediated by consensus processes, makes for a durable family of credible knowledge assessment processes that are rare amongst conventional regulatory arrangements. Processes described thus far are largely endogenous to the NRS and its constituencies. Historically these institutions have operated quietly underneath the hood. Adaptation and the resulting policy is scoped to common interests, explicitly avoiding impinging on public policy. In contrast to conventional international regimes, the NRS self-limits to the scope of its authority, namely supporting and enhancing routing system function. Thus far, the NRS's common interests have not run counter to the public interest. Nonetheless, a path-dependent history of harmonious alignment between a common and the public does not carry the assurances of alignment resulting from explicit coordination and cooperation. Some states and state-sanctioned international governance organizations see control of NRS facilities as critical to preserving their own authority. Predatory claims to stewardship of routing system resources further complicates the alignment problem. To better frame and understand this alignment problem, the concluding chapters of the dissertation explore the question: 'Are the incentives and resources of NRS institutions commensurate with the aggregate social loss due to a partial, or worse yet, systemic, failure?" Simply put, absent the progress on the explicit assurances above, the answer is no. Would-be state principals also fall short. State-based authorities are severely deficient in basic operational capacity that form the foundation of knowledge assessment capabilities and subsequent adaptive capabilities in the NRS. States' deficiencies correspond to those capabilities engendered by the NRS. Adding NRS stewardship to a state's portfolio of domestic regulatory interests will expose management processes to powerful short-term interests that will inevitably weaken, if not eliminate, extant credible knowledge assessment and adaptive capabilities. In effect, aggressive predatory rule would likely eliminate precisely the characteristics that make the NRS a valuable steward of a high clockspeed infrastructure. This initial conclusion is not a prediction of adaptive management doomed to failure. Although neither the NRS, nor state authorities, have sufficient capabilities and modes of authority to manage an Internet underpinning an ever-increasing array of public, private, and social goods on their own, a mix of their capabilities is sufficient. Rather, the conclusion frames a discussion of what explicit assurances will look like and the barriers to developing those assurances. The last part of this dissertation lays out the challenges for establishing such a comity, a mutual recognition of the norms and authority between the NRS and state authorities. In the global political arena, the NRS's political capital is credible knowledge assessment and adaptive capacity as the roots of authoritative policy advice. Barriers to explicit assurances draw lessons from the deconstruction and reconstruction of scientific knowledge in political environments, instances of international epistemic consensus, and characteristics of elusive, but effective, adaptation that has survived in conventional regulatory environments. Analytically, the dissertation argues the NRS and state authority need not be competitors-the two can be quite complementary. If these two sets of institutions can avoid the pitfalls of previous efforts, in particular short-term usurpation of the others' authority, the global, nondiscriminatory character of the Internet may be sustainable.
Thesis: Ph. D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Engineering Systems Division, 2015.Cataloged from PDF version of thesis.Includes bibliographical references (pages 477-498).
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Engineering Systems Division.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Engineering Systems Division.