The Future of Internet Regulation

[This is part of a series of posts I’m porting over from my old blog. This particular post was written in early 2010, commenting on the release of the iPad and some casual thoughts on the future of Internet regulation and law. My writing style has changed a lot since then, but it’s still cool to read and republish what I’ve written a while back.]

Earlier last week Apple announced the launching of a new mobile device called the iPad– a tool meant to combine the power of e-readers, laptops and hand-held devices into highly mobile assessors to multimedia and the web. This is part of a larger trend: the iPad moves us further away from storing information on our own PCs towards doing everything online — also known as “the cloud” — using whatever device is at hand.

Many people consider this development to be as inevitable as the move from fire stoves to microwaves. With the cloud, it’s no longer a catastrophe to lose your laptop, any more than losing your glasses would permanently destroy your vision. In addition, as more and more of our information is gathered and shared with others — through Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace — having it all online can make a lot of sense.

How big will the cloud grow, however? And what implications does the Internet’s growth have for its regulation, if any?

Traditional approaches at governing wireless and mobile communications have generally been known as “spectrum” regulation — a regime that regulates technological airwaves required for the operation of communication mediums such as broadcast, radio, and wireless internet.

The approach towards spectrum allocation to these mediums has over time evolved into the division of two opposing camps: one targeted at a free-market or “commons” approach, not unlike how businesses operate in the private sector; and the other through the mechanism of licensing by a central governing commission akin to how the United States, through the Federal Communications Commission, currently issues licenses to legitimize the operation of broadcasting stations.

The “commons” versus “rights” debate carries with it a sense of foreboding on the challenges that lie ahead of spectrum policy making in the internet age. The recent developments of media regulation suggest the emergence of a policy regime that embraces both approaches, since few lean very strongly towards one or the other.

What then would the hybrid approach look like? What is certain is that its increasing use would result in broad swaths of spectrum left in the commons, as well as broad swaths that would be sold. Even as the government moves towards abandoning the central command approach towards a hybrid model, the following fundamental challenge still lingers: on what basis would regulation determine the criteria for appropriation between the two? And what then are resulting implications to a democratic society?

The difficulty in ascertaining a well-defined set of rules for policy making in the realm is amplified when the challenge carries over to regulating internet technology. This is especially so when advancement of technology and the engineering disciplines serve as driving forces of critical analysis of current policy.

The splintered nature of technology is more so prevalent in the internet realm, where web technology have been sliced and diced into layers of physical hardware, network, network geography, software application, and user interactivity. Web systems also often have multiple tiers, each employ- ing separate technologies, and with each carrying distinctive characteristics that call for specific attention in regulation — in areas such as net neutrality, privacy and cross-border security and regulation.

What then are the implications for government and media lawmakers in this growing and nascent realm of technology? Can we still employ the traditional lens of economic efficiencies or public interest to look at internet and new media regulation? How are these interests defined? These questions present a conundrum, but if one thing is clear, it is that government should go above and beyond mere moral discussions on media rights and start harnessing specialist technical knowledge that can inform policies, as well as establish the right organizational structures to do so.

In the face of technological uncertainty and the controversial lot handed to internet policies of the future, fostering digital literacy can help governing bodies increasingly “get it right.” The challenges facing them should not be undermined — the cloud is getting bigger and indeed, its regulation is up in the air.