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Google's coup: The internet's first rule book

With love from Brussels

The regulator's rule book for deciding what is permissible on today's roads is very thick indeed. The content, behaviour and performance of "stuff on roads" is massive, and grows by the day. Try hot-rodding your lawnmower – or deciding that on Thursdays, you will only make left turns, and see how far you get.

By contrast, the regulator's rule book for deciding what is permissible on the internet - its content, behaviour and performance - couldn't be simpler. There isn't one.

And that’s the case for most countries in the world. Of course, there are established state laws on business, copyright, and defamation that have been extended to the internet, but that’s not the same thing. So the evolution of the technology is the consequence of the private agreements we enter into, between ourselves and the network operator, as the consenting adults we are.

So today’s internet is an anarchy, where users can drive what they like. And despite the fact that bad, anti-social applications can run riot - and they do - people seem to like it this way. It’s an anarchy which carries the overwhelming consensus of internet users. No one (actually, almost no one) is Marching With Placards demanding that some state agency protect us from ourselves, and write a book of rules specifically for what should be technically permissible.

For almost twenty years, internet engineers have persuaded regulators not to intervene in this network of networks, and phenomenal growth has been the result. Because data revenues boomed, telecoms companies which had initially regarded packet data networking with hostility, preferred to sit back and enjoy the returns.

But that’s changing fast. Two months ago the US regulator, which scrupulously monitors public radio for profanity, and which spent months investigating a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipples, decided it needed to start writing technical mandates. And so off it went.

Unnoticed by almost everyone, so did the EU.

"It’s the revenge of the unemployed Telecomms Regulator”, one seasoned observer in Brussels told us this week. “The internet really put them out of business. Now they're back."

Here’s a glimpse into the hitherto unreported politics going on in Brussels. The decisions being made are historic: the consequences dictate the future architecture of our networks, with implications worth billions of Euros.

A whole new rule book

The driving force behind the new rules is surprising. It's not the business world's natural bureaucracies, the telecoms companies with their ancestry as state-owned or state-regulated monopolies. It's actually Google.

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Next page: What's on the table