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Economy 22 April 2014

Permissionless Innovation — Openness, not Anarchy

By Leslie Daigle Former Chief Internet Technology Officer

A sign of success of the Internet is the degree to which we take it for granted. Do you trawl Lifehacker and TechCrunch to find the next need-to-have social media tool or cloud service support for your professional or personal pastimes? You’re confident that there will be a next thing, even if you don’t quite know where it is going to come from. Perhaps it’s going to come from you – you are building the next great Internet-based service and are looking for Kickstarter funding to make it real. Who do you need to ask in order to set up the service and make it available over the Internet?

No one.

Of course, that assumes you have the technical wherewithal to build the system and the (financial) ability to put it on a server and network with adequate capacity to operate it. It implicitly suggests that you are building a technology and/or service that will operate within the bounds of existing norms – technical standards, operational practices, and local laws.

This is about fostering innovation, not prompting anarchy.

The phrase “permission-free innovation” is used to describe how the Internet differs from closed telecommunications networks, where only the local operators could build, deploy, and offer new services to their customer base, and that within a stringent regulatory (permission-requiring) regime.

To have some idea of the scope and impact that Internet characteristic has had, consider the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web we just celebrated earlier this year. I observed in a previous post, “The Web is the poster child for the “permission-free innovation” that the Internet has enabled. Sir Tim Berners-Lee did not have to ask a central authority whether or not he could write a client-server hypertext system. He wrote it; others who found the possibilities interesting downloaded clients and servers and started using it.”

In outlining the power of the OpenStand modern paradigm for standards development, IETF Chair Jari Arkko observed in an IETF blog post that the permissionless innovation principle is so core to the Internet’s technology that it is reflected in the approach to standards development that focuses on the importance of creating building blocks.

It’s not just about technology, though. Business has benefitted greatly from this approach, too. Quite honestly – if Mark Zuckerberg had to convince a business board of the sound financial case behind Facebook, would it have been supported as a productized service? Unlikely! It defined a whole new genre of online services that exceeded the imagination of others at the time.

Again, “permissionless innovation” is not about fomenting disruption outside the bounds of appropriate behaviour; “permissionless” is a guideline for fostering innovation by removing barriers to entry.

This topic is particularly timely as the most comments on the outcome document of this week’s NETMundial meeting in Brazil have been focused on this paragraph:

Enabling environment for innovation and creativity

The ability to innovate and create has been at the heart of the remarkable growth of the Internet and it has brought great value to the global society. For the preservation of its dynamism, Internet governance must continue to allow permissionless innovation through an enabling Internet environment.

Comments suggest that readers are interpreting the phrase as an attack on recognition of rule of law and existing intellectual property rights. As outlined above, that’s certainly not the context in which the term was introduced, years ago. Indeed, any serious look at how to handle intellectual property in the Internet age needs to look closely at the advantages brought by the Internet as a platform for innovation. The Internet Society remarked, in its paper on Intellectual Property on the Internet:

Comparably, when we talk about innovation without permission, we should not consider innovation that does not obey to any rules. Clayton Christensen, for instance, has argued that innovation could largely raise the probabilities of success if it complies to four rules: 1) taking root in disruption, (2) the necessary scope to succeed, (3) leveraging the right capabilities and (4) disrupting competitors, not customers. So, when the supporters of the open Internet talk about innovation without permission they refer to the ability of those who want to market new technologies to do so without having to further justify them according to existing business or other related standards. For example, the US Supreme Court has taken a similar view in Sony v. Universal Studios, Inc., where it asserted that new technology innovators do not “carry the burden of persuasion that a new exception to the broad rights enacted by Congress should be established”. We can, therefore, surmise that it is primarily the open architecture of the Internet that encourages innovation – we can call it “open innovation”.

This is a loop we don’t want to close — having come so far from the closed telecommunications networks that defined the last century, let us not undermine the Internet as a platform for innovation – technology, business, content – by taking that permissionless nature for granted.

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