The reason, incidentally, that I was in Korea last week wasn't just to attend the Seoul Ministerial, but to moderate a panel at the Civil Society Stakeholder Forum this past Monday. Due to the vagaries of the air transport system, I arrived a bit late to my panel—by about twelve hours or so.
I had been asked to introduce the topic of convergence, open standards, and network neutrality—a broad topic—and had prepped a short piece to open the panel and introduce the panelists—who, by all accounts, gave fascinating presentations that I would gladly have given up my hotel and meal vouchers to have seen.
As I stewed at in LA, I was reminded of an old Calvin and Hobbes strip, in which Calvin, nervously about to appear for his one-line role in a school play, somehow ended up stuck in the bathroom (in an onion costume, no less) when his cue came. Having no real chance of being heard, he tries creaming his one line at the top of his lungs from the bathroom, too late and in vain.
So here's my version of that (sans onion costume); what I would have said in opening the panel, had I managed to get there.
SLIDE: Ensuring the Benefits of Convergence—Open Standards and Open Networks
One of the themes of this meeting is “Benefiting from convergence.”
So it seems we take it as a given that we will benefit from convergence. But what are those benefits?
SLIDE: Benefits of Convergence—Increased access to information; More platforms for speech and creation; (More users, more types of media, more devices in more places)
We have increased access to information. By converging on Internet protocol, we have a network that serves a growing number of users, who are now accessing this information through a growing number of different devices beyond the personal computer. These same users are now able to learn, converse, publish, and create on the network not just from more places with mobile devices, but through more different types of media. The combination of online-native devices and innovative hosting services means that users are increasingly creating not just text and images, but audio and video as a matter of course. And if hits on YouTube are any indication, this user-created content has a great deal of value for its consumers as well as its producers.
But the question isn't just HOW to benefit from these results of convergence; it’s ensuring that these benefits WILL come into being.
SLIDE: Innovation at the Edge—smart devices, creative applications, empowered users
Note that all these benefits are the result of innovation at the edges–creation of new applications, enabling of new speakers, invention of new devices–all operating on top of and at the edges of the infrastructure…
While the network itself, the infrastructure in the middle, makes all of this possible,
we need to ensure that the middle of the network–the infrastructure itself– isn't used as a bottleneck for these benefits and innovations.
SLIDE: Bottlenecks and Network Effects—larger network ->much larger utility; lends natural advantage to incumbents; advantage used to lock out new entrants
I want to talk about bottlenecks and network effects, and how they interact.
Networks become ever more useful as more people connect to them—a system that connects a million people is more than ten times as useful as one that connects a hundred thousand. We can see network effects come into play in the use of communications infrastructure–whether that's interconnected fiber, wireless systems, or even document formats–the more people there are on the network, the more useful it becomes.
This creates powerful incentives and powerful tools for incumbents or those with large amounts of market power to become bottlenecks, extracting additional value by favoring their own products or those of their business partners.
SLIDE: Bottlenecks—Closed Standards (locking devices off networks, locking applications off from accessing content); Network Discrimination (blocking or degrading competitors, steering users to uses convenient to network provider)
The problem with this is that this comes at the expense of the innovator, the new voice, and the ordinary user.
Proprietary standards can be used to prevent new entrants from attaching new devices to existing communications networks, or can use the current ubiquity of a given proprietary data format to prevent new applications from gaining popularity with users.
Network discrimination can be used to block or degrade content from competitors, whether competition is from another provider of the same service—e.g. an unaffiliated movie streaming site—or from a new application or business model—e.g. legal P2P download service competing with the provider's streaming site.
These practices, while a natural consequence of a properly self-interested company, if left unchecked will stifle the innovation at the edge that creates the benefits of convergence.
So in order to truly benefit from convergence, we need to make sure, first, that the infrastructure is there to promote communication…
…but more importantly, we need to ensure that intermediaries don't act as bottlenecks and allow creation to flourish.
SLIDE: Policies Ensuring the Benefits of Convergence—Open Standards and Net Neutrality
We can do this by ensuring that information on the network is readable to all, through the use of open standards, which allow infinite possible and multitudes of practical applications to work with different protocols or file formats. Open standards also allow new and innovative devices to connect to existing networks.
We can also ensure that these devices communicate, and this data flows over a network free from anticompetitive discrimination by promoting policies that lead to neutral networks, where content is not blocked or discriminated against by virtue of its source, content, or destination.
…and that was the point at which I was to introduce my distinguished panel.