There’s a new book out on Internet policy that is essential reading for anyone interested in Internet policy—and probably for anyone interested in the law, economics, technology, or start-ups. I recommend it to everyone. It’s that good.
Barbara van Schewick’s new book, “Internet Architecture and Innovation,” is one of the very few books in my field in the same league as Larry Lessig’s Code, in 2000, and Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, in 2006, in terms of its originality, depth, and importance to Internet policy and other disciplines. I expect the book to affect how people think about the Internet; about the interactions between law and technical architectures in all areas of law; about entrepreneurship in general. I also think her insights on innovation economics, which strike me as far more persuasive than lawyers’ usual assumptions, should influence “law and economics” thinking for the better.
Books this good don’t come along every day—or even every year–and I’m already late to the praise-party. Lessig, a Harvard Law Professor, sang its praises on the book jacket and in the New York Times. MIT computer scientist David Reed has joined in, and so has venture capitalist and Twitter investor Brad Burnham. There’s a reason leading legal minds, technologists, and investors are raving about a book: really, it’s that good.
The remainder of this post explains why this book is important and eye-opening for everyone who reads books, not only for those who (like me) have spent their careers in Internet policy.
Barbara van Schewick is well-known to Internet lawyers as a brilliant, extremely thorough lawyer. And engineer. And expert on innovation economics. She was (with Yale’s Jack Balkin and Harvard’s Charles Nesson) one of three academics joining consumer groups to prompt the FCC’s 2008 investigation of Comcast interferinge with peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent. The FCC’s 2009 open Internet proposal, in its background policy discussion, cites her scholarly work far more than any other scholar. Her law review articles advance novel, seminal critiques of what economists considered “conventional wisdom” on the one-monopoly profit principle and the role of competition in ensuring open technology platforms. This scholarship was influential not only in the US, but also in Europe and Canada’s recent Internet policy proceeding.
The book addresses how–specifically–the Internet’s original architecture has fostered tremendous innovation in consumer and business software and therefore economic growth. The relationship between innovation and the Internet’s architecture has been central to government policy debates around the world–as well as to the business plans of entrepreneurs and investors. While others have asserted and guessed that the Internet’s architecture fosters economic innovation, she puts these assertions on solid theoretical and empirical ground, incorporating insights from engineering, management science, behavioral economics, real options theory, network economics, evolutionary economics, and legal policy. And you don’t have to know anything about these areas in advance, as she doesn’t expect the reader to be expert in one these fields. (Almost nobody could be expert in all of them.)
Each section of the book is valuable on its own terms. She begins with a straightforward technical description of the Internet that is helpful for all of us who’ve wondered how our email works. She then develops a framework for analyzing the relationship between innovation and constraints imposed by a technological architecture. She does this with what some law professors would call a “law and economics” approach. (In Wealth of Networks, Benkler also uses these economic tools for his purposes.) The upshot of her analysis is that innovation benefits from more innovators. Because the value of a particular innovation is often impossible to predict in advance, innovation benefits from many innovators, all with different experiences and worldviews, experimenting and constantly adapting. Other architectures would lead to fewer innovators and less innovation–particularly architectures that increase costs to innovators, and so eliminate much of the accidental and iterative innovation we have experienced on the Internet.
Setting out this framework for thinking about issues, she then applies the framework to the Internet, contrasting its original architecture, where anyone could innovate with few initial expenses, and without seeking permission from any government or central office, with a now-possible architecture that would require greater investment and force innovators to negotiate with the network-infrastructure-owners to bring innovative ideas to market.
She ends with a discussion of policy, identifying the features of the Internet’s architecture that we must preserve to ensure robust innovation, and discussing the proper role of government policy in preserving architectural features necessary for innovation.
My Favorite Part
This is one of those rare books where every chapter is full of novel and important ideas. But I’ll tell you about my very favorite part. In the eighth chapter, beginning with “The Value of Many Innovators,” van Schewick presents the stories of how several major technologies were born: Google, Flickr, EBay, 37Signals, Twitter, and even the World Wide Web, email, and web-based email. I had always suspected that the “accidental” beginnings and unexpected successes of these technologies were a series flukes, one fluke after another. Rather, van Schewick explains, it’s a pattern. Her models actually predict the pattern accurately–unlike other academic models like the efficient market hypothesis and theories on valuing derivatives. These entrepreneurial stories (or case studies, to academics) are eye-opening; they’re also counter-intuitive unless you consider the management science and evolutionary economics van Schewick applies to analyze them. So if you wondered what the invention of Flickr, Google, Twitter, and the World Wide Web had in common, van Schewick answers the question.
And … the Book’s Intimidation Factor
Most of you are not techies. Like me, you may have studied the humanities or law. I consider you my people.
I know some of you, among my people, will be wrongly intimidated by a book titled simply “Internet Architecture and Innovation.” (Although this is a far catchier title than my favorite article’s title: “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State.”)
But don’t be so intimidated by the title that you miss out on van Schewick’s important ideas.
For others, I will list the things-that-I-know-scare-you-but-should-not.
1. Her name. “van Schewick.” What an intimidating, scary German name, worthy of a Dr. Strangelove scene or an Austin Powers movie. I know. But no worries. Despite her meticulous thoroughness, her German accent, and her “van”–her academic writing is gentle and clear. It’s not turgid like those H-Germans, Habermas or Heidegger. In fact, she knows her book “crosses a number of disciplines,” like engineering, economics, and law and had consciously aimed to make it “accessible to all” of us who have different backgrounds. There are zero equations in the text. And equations can be scary to lawyers and law students.
2. Equations. Nope. No need to worry. Not one of those books.
3. The difficult concepts. van Schewick is addressing difficult questions. She is not addressing fluff. But that’s a strength. She cuts through the complexity to put her finger on the key issues, to address all counterarguments and angles, and to make sense of it for the reader.
4. Length. It is almost 400 pages. But van Schewick includes several shortcuts–like three charts of page references as guides for reading the book to answer particular questions. (Policymakers will likely rely on those charts.) The way I look at it: the book itself is a short-cut. It may take one or two weeks to read. To get a similar grasp of these issues, I would otherwise have had to spend ten long years locked in a library, reading and analyzing the global literature on Internet engineering, economics and innovation, legal policy, and business-managerial decision-making, all while speaking often to the top thinkers worldwide in all these areas and eating brain foods to increase my mental ability to keep up with the task. But, luckily for me, van Schewick spent a decade exploring all these issues, apparently locked in the architectural economist’s equivalent of the Room of Requirement, surrounded by books, some full of equations, and top experts.
5. Abstraction. The book at times sets forth general frameworks and arguments that go beyond, and therefore abstract from, particular stories and economic conditions. Very abstract models can be hard to wrap the mind around. But van Schewick’s models are not too abstract. Plus, a model for understanding complexity is the point of the book (and of most non-fiction books I have read, from The Tipping Point and Outliers to Freakanomics and The Origin of the Species). Such books are meant to make broader sense of particular phenomena.
So be not afraid.
[Note on digital version: MIT Press is not making the digital version available for three years.]