The following text is copyright 1997 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.
Like regulating acid rain
One of the best things about working for a place like Harvard is the constant flow of interesting events that occur here. The most recent of the interesting events was this year's edition of the ongoing Harvard Information Infrastructure Project(HIIP) (see http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/iip/index.html). In this case it was a two day conference on the impact of the Internet on communications policy. ( The papers from the conference will be posted at http://ksgwww.harvard.edu/iip/iicompol/first.html) The conference attracted a wide range of people from all over the world, some of them even had a clue as to what the Internet is and how it relates to traditional country-based telecommunications regulations.
One can categorize the attendees to this conference into three bunches; regulators--who seem to be genetically pre-disposed to fix things by adding regulations, academicians and policy researchers--whose understanding of how the Internet actually works is often somewhat challenged, and a motley collection of others ranging from reporters to libertarians.
As in past HIIP conferences, the overall feeling is that the conference is targeted at those in governments who are trying to understand just what this Internet thing is anyway. Because of this some of the papers can be a bit low in technology and high in fuzzy government policy-speak. But most are generally quite interesting explorations of problems ranging from the impacts of the changing Internet peering policies to the distribution of ISP access in the USA. The best title: Ducks, Grandma, and Sausage: What happens when the telephone network gets sucked into the digital tornado.
The best analogy that came out of the conference is from John Mathiason of New York University who compared the difficulty of creating regulations for the Internet to what was going on in Japan at the same time as the conference. Representatives from 150 countries have gathered in Kyoto to try and figure out how to deal with global warming.
The Internet and the world's climate have quite a bit in common, at least in the area of the effectiveness of regulatory actions. No individual country is able to introduce and enforce rules to control acid rain just as no individual country is able to regulate the Internet.
Regulations for global phenomena must be developed though frequently tedious multi-national negotiations. This type of negotiation rarely produces detailed regulations since it is far too hard to get everyone to agree on the details. About all that can happen is general agreement on the basic 'rules of the road'.
Some Internet libertarians would argue that the Internet requires no regulations. That argument is irrelevant since there will be regulations, needed or not, since the Internet is just too important to the economic future of the world - expect to see regulations about minimum reliability of Internet backbones and peering arrangements popping up in the next year or so. In the area of an immunity from regulations the Internet is very much a victim of its own success. (see http://carin.bellcore.com:8000/~swrs/ippoll/daily.html to see how successful.)
disclaimer: Harvard produces fog better than acid rain but in any case the above is my own forecast.