“Smart Networks” Are A Stupid-Bad Idea

This story in MIT Technology Review scares me.

Instead of letting all computers within the network communicate freely, Ethane is designed so that communication privileges within the network have to be explicitly set; that way, only those activities deemed safe are permitted. “With hindsight, it’s a very obvious thing to do,” McKeown says.

No matter how obvious it seems, it’s still a really bad idea. It’s hard to imagine a world without the internet now, which makes it especially easy to dismiss the critical features that made it possible. The internet was born and has thrived because of the very thing McKeown is trying to kill: freedom.

TCP/IP, the foundation protocol of the internet, has spurred innovation because of how open it is. Bruce Sterling’s Short History of the Internet explains how that freedom supported the network’s rapid, noting, “As long as individual machines could speak the packet-switching lingua franca of the new, anarchic network, their brand-names, and their content, and even their ownership, were irrelevant.”

And not only did TCP/IP allow the internet usage to explode the way it did, it supported the rush of innovation that made the internet useful. Ray Tomlinson, the inventor of email as we know it today, is reported to have said, “don’t tell anyone! This isn’t what we’re supposed to be working on,” when he introduced it to his friend.

Inventor of HTTP, HTML, the first web server, and browser, Tim Berners-Lee explains how that freedom helped make the World Wide Web possible:

When, seventeen years ago, I designed the Web, I did not have to ask anyone’s permission. The new application rolled out over the existing Internet without modifying it. I tried then, and many people still work very hard still, to make the Web technology, in turn, a universal, neutral, platform. It must not discriminate against particular hardware, software, underlying network, language, culture, disability, or against particular types of data.

Now imagine what might have happened if Ray had to ask the network administrators for permission for his new email application. How much longer would it have taken to develop? What if TimBL needed permission to play with this silly web idea?

I suppose I might take some comfort from Scott Mace, who screams

Academics have to earn their pay somehow, and lately, a lot of them have once again been spending more time trying to reinvent the Internet than fixing our education system. I say that with a certain bitter memory from the dot-com bubble years, when so many academics (and ultimately, a short-lived boomlet of vendors) labored so long to bring ”smart“ networking to the masses. Guess what, it never happened.

But instead I see it as another example of the battle between anarchists and oligarchs as described by Siva Vaidhyanathan, and I’m afraid that, as with DRM, this conflict might tilt towards the established oligarchs, no matter how short sighted they may be.

Separately, and somewhat amusingly, Berlin and NYC want their own private internet, and Dan the Mennonite wants one too.