Internet2 and net neutrality

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I’m a huge fan of the work Susan Crawford is doing on net neutrality and other Internet governance issues. If you’re not reading her blog, you should be.

But I was surprised to read a post titled What’s the Internet2 Connection yesterday. In that post she reproduces some speculation that Internet2 might be up to some nefarious activities, and that use of the term “commodity Internet” to refer to the commercial Internet infrastructure could be taken to mean something bad, and might specifically relate to Internet2 conspiring to insert something like a Broadcast Flag technology into the core of the network to please the RIAA and MPAA.

I wrote to Susan with the following comment, which she kindly posted on her blog:

I think you’ve got the intent of at least the historical
context of Internet 2 almost exactly backwards.

When the NSF got out of the business of running the backbone network
of the Internet in the mid-90s, major research universities who
already depended very heavily on the net for not only common
communications functions like email but also for increasingly high
bandwidth research applications started to get very nervous,
especially when the telcos who took over running the backbone
networks started talking about charging by the bit instead of by
capacity of hookups.

Internet 2 was formed as a consortial effort, initially among those
top research institutions, to have a strategy of providing some level
of guaranteed, consistent connectivity among the institutions that
would provide for a safer haven in an uncertain world. It turns out
that the Abilene network that Internet 2 has operated has been very
successful at providing that consistency, and provided very high
bandwidths at far better pricing than individual institutions
could’ve gotten by themselves.

But, of course, it turns out that in the end Internet 2 still is, at
least theoretically, at the mercy of the telcos, as the bandwidth
provided is, in the end, leased from the telcos.

To that end, there is a newer consortial effort among some research
institutions that has actually bought its own fiber and is operating
a new backbone network – this effort is called National Lambda Rail,
which is attempting to provide a national scale infrastructure for
research and experimentation in networking technologies and
applications. (see http://www.nlr.net).

So I wouldn’t read too much into the term “commodity Internet” – it
was merely meant as a way of distinguishing the at-that-time-new
commercialized Internet backbone from what the research institutions
saw they needed, which was a way to get some dedicated connectivity
among themselves to support research efforts.

I also followed up with an email to Susan on the relationship between Internet2 and the content industry:

Hi, again, Susan –

I realized as I cycled in to the office this morning that I hadn’t addressed the whole issue of the RIAA and MPAA membership in Internet 2 and what that’s all about.

From my viewpoint, (I’m not on the inside track at Internet 2, though I am friends with a bunch of folks who work very hard on some of the initiatives, so this is interpretation, not revelation) it’s mostly about trying tto protect the reputation of organizations including Internet 2 itself as well as the member institutions.

The institutions that are Internet 2 members route traffic between themselves over the Abilene backbone provided by Internet2. That backbone is pretty high speed (10 gbps) and reliable.

Unsurprisingly, some enterprising students (in this case at U Mass Amherst) put together a new peer-to-peer application built to take advantage of the Abilene connections. This application, called i2hub (there’s a wikipedia entry with more info) gathered a fair amount of attention, as might be expected, from the RIAA and MPAA last year. Predictably, this got played out in various hyperbolic pres releases from the industry that made it look like Internet 2 was somehow behaving irresponsible by allowing this trading to happen (for example, see the RIAA press release at http://www.riaa.com/news%5Cnewsletter%5C042705.asp, which talks about “an emerging epidemic of music theft on a specialized, high-speed university computer network known as Internet2.” sheesh).

The folks who run Internet 2, as well as the Presidents and Provosts etc of the member institutions were worried about the activities of the students and the reaction to them by the content industry besmirching the reputation of a network that they had worked very hard to fund and build. So they opened up discussions with the RIAA and MPAA that eventually led to them joining Internet 2 as corporate members.

I don’t know the extent to which they’ve been active members in any of the Internet 2 activities. I do know that there are people within Internet 2 who believe that there are possible avenues for discussion on coming up with open standards for digital rights management technologies that would offer some hope of interoperability in that contentious world. I know these folks are primarily interested not in the development of such standards for the entertainment world as much as they think they hold promise for allowing individuals to do things such as control the extent to which they want their private information released on such things as electronic medical records. My own opinion is that we’d be much better off furthering the use of rights expression languages for all these types of situations and dealing with abuse of the expressed rights as needed, but it’s probably an area where reasonable folks can differ.

That may be more than you wanted to know 🙂

Cheers –

– Oren

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