8 The architecture of the internet

8.1 Balance and control

We have examined the story of innovation as related to the internet, using the perspective of Lawrence Lessig's book, The Future of Ideas, as a guide. In summary:

  • the internet led to an explosion of innovation;

  • this innovation was the result of the internet's innovation commons: e2e architecture (code layer); shared resources; laws keeping the phone networks open for use by internet innovators;

  • this innovation constituted a revolution which was, and continues to be, perceived as a threat by established commercial interests;

  • those interests acted to deal with the effects that this innovation had on their markets (Lessig's counter-revolution);

  • the main tools they used were law and architecture.

The law that we have been primarily concerned with is intellectual property law. Intellectual property rights are inherently paradoxical. Intellectual property theoretically produces an incentive to produce (create/innovate) new information, the distribution of which is in the public interest. Yet it generates this incentive theoretically by restricting access to the new information produced. So it is important for a balance to be struck between the rights of the creators and the rights of the public to access their creations. Economists would describe this as striking a balance between the ‘incentive function’ and the ‘distributive function’ of intellectual property. So if a small number of powerful actors have excessive influence over the shaping of intellectual property laws, as Lessig suggests, then this will lead to an imbalance.

Architectural effects can also lead to an imbalance. Robert Moses' bridges demonstrated how architecture can even interfere with individual freedoms. Lessig is concerned that a small number of powerful actors will come to control the architecture of the internet. This concentrated control would lead to an imbalance of power between the controllers and the remaining majority of the internet users, undermining the value of the internet as an innovation commons.

Whether and to what extent Lessig's predictions come true remains to be seen. Since the original publication of the book, Lessig claims that the signs of evolution towards the kind of control he described in The Future of Ideas are even stronger. As part of his fight against this control, Lessig convinced the publishers of his 2004 book, Free Culture, to make it openly available online.

Likewise Lessig’s 2008 book. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy is also openly available online.

8.2 The physical layer