Some Important Thoughts About Internet Governance

David Bollier and John Clippinger have an extremely interesting short essay on “The Next Great Internet Disruption: Authority and Governance” that is well worth reading.  They start from Reed’s Law:

When we look back on the past twenty years of Internet history, we can more fully appreciate the prescience of David P. Reed’s seminal 1999 paper on “Group Forming Networks” (GFNs).  “Reed’s Law” posits that value in networks increases exponentially as interactions move from a broadcasting model that offers “best content” (in which value is described by n, the number of consumers) to a network of peer-to-peer transactions (where the network’s value is based on “most members” and mathematically described by n2).  But by far the most valuable networks are based on those that facilitate group affiliations, Reed concluded.  When users have tools for “free and responsible association for common purposes,” he found, the value of the network soars exponentially to 2– a fantastically large number.   This is the Group Forming Network.  Reed predicted that “the dominant value in a typical network tends to shift from one category to another as the scale of the network increases.…”

It’s a little geeky, yes – [and, if you’re interested, I’ve got a somewhat longer and, I think, reasonably intelligible discussion in chapter 3 of  my book, here] — but I’ve long thought and still believe that it embodies a principle of the highest significance in understanding what the Net is and what it might become.  As I’ve said ad nauseum over the years to anyone who will listen, the Internet is, in a most important sense, entirely a phenomenon of large scale;  it is different from the hundreds of thousands or millions of other networks and inter-networks and inter-inter-networks out there in the world solely because of its enormous size.  Size matters, because (Reed’s Law) value of a network enabling peer-to-peer connectivity scales exponentially with the number of members of the network — as it gets bigger, it gets (a lot) more better; as it gets better, more people want to join;more people want to join; as more people join, it gets bigger; . . . and so on.

The Internet mastered peer-to-peer communication pretty early on – with the development of the various email, instant messaging, and ultimately P2P file-sharing, protocols.  And it did, indeed, keep getting bigger and bigger, and more and more attractive to new entrants, . . .

But Reed’s Law shows that in GFNs – group-forming networks, networks that allow users to form groups of any size, from 2 to the number of machines on the network  – value scales much, much more rapidly as the network gets bigger; hyper-geometrically, the mathematicians call it.

[To give you an idea, here’s a little table showing the difference between something growing exponentially (fast) and something growing hyper-geometrically (really, really, fast).
N                exponential scaling (N2)       hyper-geomteric scaling (2N)

1                       1                                                 2
10                    100                                            1024
50                   2,500                                        1,125,899,907,000,000
100                 10,000                                      126,765,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

You get the idea.
The Internet has only just begun — with the development of applications like Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia — to realize the power of GFNs, and the success of those platforms is due in significant measure to their ability to enable each user to form (and/or become part of) diverse groups of enormously varying sizes.  One thing I can promise you:  the group-forming capabilities of these applications will look hilariously primitive in 5 to 10 years.

What does this have to do with Internet governance? A great deal, and possibly everything.  Governance is nothing more (or less) than the processes through which groups articulate norms and rules that are binding on their members, and their policies and procedures for dealing with other groups.  With a more robust ecosystem of group-formation tools at our disposal, it is easier to imagine, in Bollier and Clippinger’s words, “the emergence of new sorts of effective, quasi-autonomous governance and self-provisioning” on the Net — that could achieve both greater legitimacy than territorially-based governance institutions (because they could be much more closely aligned with each individual’s voluntary consent to abide by the rules) and which could be more effective, in the a-territorial networked world, at dealing with harmful conduct that institutions whose powers are territorially defined.

And, as I’ve said many times before, imagining it is the first step towards its realization – necessary (though not sufficient).


Thanks for David Johnson for the pointer.

Update:  Reader Samuel East has set my terminology straight, for the record:

The insight is correct, but unfortunately the terminology isn’t: N^2 growth is polynomial (not exponential), and 2^N growth is exponential or geometric (same thing, but not “hyper-geometric” or “hyper-exponential”). Wikipedia’s page on Big O Notation has a useful chart (buried under a pageful of math-ese, naturally). Anyhow, group-forming behavior actually is factorial (one could accurately describe it as “hyper-geometric”). So for accuracy, 2^N is actually a bit small:

N    N^2     N! (factorial)
1    1       1
10   100     3,628,800
50   2,500   3.04*10^64
100  10,000  9.33*10^157