Thursday, September 30, 2010

John Locke and the Internet

Bill Cheswick -- Internet Mapping Project
To understand the Internet, let's look to John Locke, writing in Of Civil Government:
To understand political power correctly, and derive it from its origins, we must consider what state all men are naturally in: a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions as they see fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking permission or depending upon the will of any other man.
The Internet is actually a network of networks, with each network administered by a distinct company or organization.  An organization has complete freedom and independence to do what it wants within its own network.  It decides how to build its network, what software it will run, what services to offer to its users, and how much to charge.  In a sense, each organization is granted its own natural rights, without asking the permission of any other entity.
The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one among another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties and a greater security against any that are not of it.
As in society, networks must give up some natural liberty when choosing to be part of a larger community, in this case, the Internet.  In order to live peaceably with one another, networks must use Internet standards to interact with each other, such as IP, TCP and HTTP.  HTTP is the protocol used to communicate between web servers and clients.  Each HTTP message is delivered using TCP, which guarantees reliable delivery between two computers.  IP is the lingua franca of the Internet, delivering messages between computers in a format that all computers attached to the Internet must understand.  IP also provides unique addresses that identify each computer.
For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority.
The community governing the Internet is the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).   The IETF is divided into a set of Working Groups, each governed by a charter that outlines their goals and responsibilities.  The Tao of the IETF explains how the group is "a loosely self-organized group of people who contribute to the engineering and evolution of Internet technologies".  The IETF is not a corporation, has no board, members or dues, and is run by volunteers.  The governing philosophy of the IETF is summarized by Dave Clark:
We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.
 Its guiding principle when creating standards is stated by Jon Postel:
Be conservative in what you send and liberal in what you accept.
The IETF runs on the belief of its participants.
And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to every one of that society to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be governed by it; or else this original compact, whereby he with others incorporates into one society, would signify nothing and be no compact, if he be left free and under no other ties than he was in before in the state of nature.
There are no police enforcing the standards, but you have an obligation to obey the standards set by the IETF, or you might not be able to send data to other networks. For what use is the Internet if you do not abide by its rules?  There is no compact between networks without standards of behavior.