Notes | The Net Was Never Neutral

Posted on Sep 23, 2021

Source: | Author: Lori Emerson | Date: August 14, 2021


Emerson asks how are we living out the structures created by TPC/IP? Why haven’t we stopped and asked if the internet is finished yet? And why did we stop developing our infrastructure at TCP/IP?

Emerson argues that we must understand the technical specifications otherwise we get lost in the existing narrative of the internet being an American invention (and the exceptionalism that comes with such statements). She then investigates the history of TCP/IP and points out that the layered system of the Internet was created to future proof the system, but in doing so it also obscured how the system works from the masses. As it stands, the Internet gives the impression that “it just works.”

After going through the history of this architecture Emerson invites us to imagine an alternative by looking at the Recursive Internet Network Architecture (RINA) proposal. This is a specification designed from the ground up to function as a “distributed Inter-Process Communication (IPC)” repeating across different scopes. The author uses this specification to point out the impossibility of the Internet being both neutral and inherently good and encourages that TCP/IP be a starting point for investigating the power structures of the Internet.

Quotes and Observations

The internet is a “closed open platform” in that “The internet is “open” in the sense that, from the point of view of the user, it is generally uncensored; and from the point of view of the engineer, it’s open because TCP/IP makes possible the connection of any and all networks. But these foregoing characteristics do not mean that the net is fundamentally neutral or inherently a bastion for freedom.” (2)

Emerson goes on to point out that the need for net neutrality does not mean that the net is inherently neutral.

“It’s fairly common to point out the roots of the Internet in the American ARPANET which adopted the decentralized network structure of packet switching, creating multiple paths between nodes in the network rather than single pathways which could disrupt the whole network in the event of an attack or outage; however, packet swittching was also adopted by the French research network Cyclades and in fact ARPANET later adopted the connectionless or unreliable datagram structure implement by Cyclades in 1972. The Internet, then, is just as much French in origin as it is American” (3)

”…TCP/IP seems to have been created more out of the desire to not interfere with the burgeoning computer industry than it was to build an open and inclusive network for the good of the people.” (3)

It’s interesting note that hardware, even keyboards were only recently standardized when the web was initially being built.

Despite the notion that anyone can come to the party and work on the protocol, of the 25ish engineers three came from one high school in the San Fernando Valley (5).

Packet switching was designed as a compliment to the phone service and internet protocol was not designed to replace the telephone network nor was it optimized to support streaming media, like voice, video, and broadcasting (6). To a large extent TCP/IP is the dominant protocol simply because DARPA had the biggest budget and they invested heavily in it.

Eugene Thacker: “the technical specs matter, ontologically and politically”

All layers have the same functions they just operate on a different range of the problem. Where, in the 1970s, it was assumed that each layer had a different function (8).

This piece feels like it belongs in conversation with McKelvey’s work in Internet Daemons

References to Read

Other Networks Project

Eugene Thacker

“Patterns in Network Architecture: A Return to Fundamentals,” John Day

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