Comments of Members of the MIT Media Lab in the Matter of FCC NPRM 14-28 “In the Matter of Promoting the Open Internet”

Comments of members of the MIT Media Lab in the matter of FCC NPRM 14-28 “In the Matter of Promoting the Open Internet”

Andrew Lippman, Associate Director, MIT Media Lab; Sr. Research Scientist

with contributions and research from
Edward L. Platt, MIT Media Lab
Jon Ferguson, MIT Media Lab
Scott Greenwald, MIT Media Lab


This document is the response of members of the MIT Media Lab to NPRM 14-28, “In the Matter of Promoting the Open Internet.” We recognize that the Internet has become the platform for a great many innovations that have changed the face of society and industry. It has provided opportunity for people throughout the world to gain from unfettered access to information and, most important, to create a universal platform upon which advances in computing can propagate and impact the well-being of people everywhere. We therefore feel it is imperative to secure a future where the Internet remains open, without the constraints or restrictions that benefit some economic entities at the expense of the population at large, both in the United States and throughout the world.

We recognize that the Commission has a critical role to play in ensuring that this essential component of modern society–one that will only grow in importance over the coming years–remains an accessible forum. We further believe that Internet access is a human right and that universal access should be an integral part of Open Internet regulation and design.

In this document, we highlight the aspects of the Internet that have fostered a new wave of social and economic invention and innovation. We also want to emphasize the importance of keeping the Internet open to evolve while, at the same time, retaining its ability to offer all participants the opportunity to realize the economic advantages that they as innovators have created. We believe this position supports many of the points that the Commission and the Chairman have already articulated.

We base our comments on five points that are often overlooked in the discussion. First, while a common metric for the value of the Internet is the commercial success of new enterprises it has enabled, we would argue that a far more important metric is the number of attempts at innovation it has allowed. The permission-less ability to try new ideas is of primary benefit to society, to learning, and to our economic health. The court (in Verizon 2014) notes the existence of Google as an example of innovation. We agree, but would amplify that example by noting that Google was preceded by Alta Vista, Yahoo, and a host of other Internet web search and exploration platforms. While these other undertakings have had less market success, they remained important in both inspiring Google and creating the climate in which any number of other creative Internet endeavors could succeed. It is these continued attempts that pave the way for an inventive, flexible, and vibrant society. The Internet is not just about its successes; it is about the freedom and ease by which one can experiment.

The second point is that this freedom to experiment has significantly advanced the principle of learning both in the US and worldwide, with perhaps as much–if not more–impact as more directed educational initiatives. The notion of creating, testing, debugging, and realizing an idea is an inherently educational process, as was noted repeatedly by leading thinkers in the field of learning, such as Jean Piaget and Seymour Papert. Moreover, the ability to do this in an environment of exploration–where the work of others feeds one’s own activities–amplifies that process. This has been amply demonstrated by contributory reference materials, as well as work conducted at the Media Lab by Professor Mitchel Resnick. One need only look at the growth of the open-source community or the ability to view the source code of a web page to witness the impact of the easy access to, and creation and distribution of, ideas. The Internet is a learning engine as well as an economic one.

A third point is about symmetry. We at the Media Lab make little distinction between consumers and businesses in the use and development of ideas that are tied to the Internet. We do not believe that society is best served when people are mere consumers of data served by “content industries.” Instead, we enjoy unrestricted and unmetered access to the Internet backbone without firewalls or intermediaries of any sort. As a result, we spawn servers on demand to test ideas or merely to promote ease of use among members of our Lab and the public. For many of us, the Internet is of greatest value as a forum for expression, rather than as a means of consumption. We consider this the essence of network service, and we see no reason for anyone to be denied that right. The Internet must remain a two-way street.

Fourth, we propose that Internet providers who hold a public franchise for public airwaves or public rights of way–both wired and wireless–be required to deploy at a minimum an open, non-discriminatory pathway through their Internet gateways for free access. In other words, an Internet service provider must be at least a dumb pipe. As long as non-discriminatory Internet access is available, we see no reason to prevent the addition of other specialized, for-fee services. Nor do we see the need to restrict a vibrant market in developing and implementing them. Hence the importance of the phrase “at least.”

And finally, we propose that providers be required to offer open Internet access with bandwidth, performance (as is apparent at any end terminal), and accessibility that is at least as good as any specialized service they offer. If a provider elects to add a high-bandwidth media service that has its own private access for delivery, then it must provide its subscribers with the option for an equivalent, financially accessible increase in speed for the open Internet. Likewise, it must ensure that improvements to proprietary service channels be matched by improvements to the open Internet. Simply put, if there are two lanes on the highway, any improvement to one must be matched by equivalent improvement in the other. We call this equal access a Pipe++ strategy.

As we will argue, we see no regulatory impediment to this policy. Quite the opposite: the sense of the courts and the attitude of the FCC itself mitigate in favor of it. Yet regulation of the open Internet has often been bound by obsolete classifications that date from an era of monopoly telephone service or segregated computer services. Shoehorning the modern Internet into various pigeonholes that associate an application with its delivery technology demonstrates a misunderstanding, and poorly frames the discussion. Equally deleterious is saddling any public franchise with heavyweight regulation that might impede innovation and progress. It is clear that polarizing this discussion into fully packaged regulatory regimes that do not apply is counterproductive; we can do better and most wish to.

Finally, we make special note of the distinction between wired and wireless Internet access. Much of the current discussion implicitly addresses the wired path that ultimately reaches homes and businesses. However, the critical mass of development is migrating toward creating a wireless future, particularly in areas of commerce, health, and the sustainability of our environment. While many of us believe that Internet access ought to be available to all, we also note that in the near future, wireless connectivity will likewise become as socially and economically important as wired access is today. We therefore hope for a future where the same regulatory regimes apply to both.


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Hugh Herr, head of the Lab's Biomechatronics research group, spoke at TED 2014 on March 19 about his group's work in creating bionic prosthetic limbs, and their goal to eliminate human disability through technology. To conclude his talk, he spoke about working with Boston Marathon bombing survivor Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a professional ballroom dancer who lost part of her leg in the attack. The group has spent the past 200 days developing a new prosthetic limb for Adrianne that would allow her to dance again. At the end of the talk, Adrianne took to the stage with a partner and danced a rumba on her new leg—her first onstage performance since the attack.

Press coverage includes:

The Boston Globe
TED Blog
Q&A with Hugh Herr and TED
BBC News
The Globe and Mail
Boston Herald

Image Credit: 
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Press coverage includes:

Arts and Culture Texas, 2/4/14

The Dallas News, 2/8/14

PBS News Hour, 2/10/14

Front Row blog, D Magazine, 2/11/14