Does An Internet Infrastructure Taxonomy Help Or Hurt?
from the might-create-more-problems dept
We’ve been running our Greenhouse discussion on content moderation at the infrastructure level for a bit now, and normally all of the posts for these discussions come from expert guest commentators. However, I’m going to add my voice to the collection here because there’s one topic that I haven’t seen covered, and which is important, because it comes up whenever I’m talking to people about content moderation at the infrastructure level: do we need a new taxonomy for internet infrastructure to better have this discussion?
The thinking here is that the traditional OSI model of the internet layers is somewhat outdated and not particularly relevant to discussions such as this one. Also, it’s hellishly confusing as is easily demonstrated by this fun Google box of “people also ask” on a search on “internet layers.”
Clearly, lots of people are confused.
Even just thinking about what counts as infrastructure can be confusing. One of my regular examples is Zoom, the video conferencing app that has become standard and required during the COVID pandemic: is that infrastructure? Is that edge? It has elements of both.
But the underlying concern in this entire discussion is that most of the debate around content moderation is about clear edge providers: the services that definitely touch the end users: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. And, as I noted in my opening piece, there is a real concern that because the debate focuses on those companies, and there appears to be tremendous appetite for policy making and regulating those edge providers, that any new regulations may not realize how they will also impact infrastructure providers, where the impact could be much more seismic.
Given all that, many people have suggested that a “new taxonomy” might be useful, to help “carve out” infrastructure services from any new regulations regarding moderation. It’s not hard to understand a concept like “maybe this rule should apply to social media sites, but not to domain registrars” for example.
However, the dangers in building up such a taxonomy greatly outweigh any such benefits. First, as noted earlier, any new taxonomy is going to be fraught with difficult questions. It’s not always clear what really is infrastructure these days. We’ve already discussed how financial intermediaries are, in effect infrastructure for the internet these days — and that’s a very different participant than the traditional OSI model of internet layers. Same with advertising firms. And I’ve already mentioned Zoom as a company that clearly has an edge component, but feels more like it should be considered infrastructure. Part of that is just the nature of how the internet works, in which some of the layers are merged. Marc Andreessen famously noted that software eats the world, but the internet itself is subsuming more and more traditional infrastructure as well — and that creates complications.
On top of that, this is an extremely dynamic world. Part of the reason why the OSI model feels obsolete is because it is. Things change, and they can change fairly rapidly on the internet. So any taxonomy might be obsolete by the time it’s created, and that’s extremely dangerous if the plan is to use it for classifying services for the purpose of regulation.
The final concern with such a taxonomy is simply that it seems likely to encourage regulatory approaches in places where it’s not clear if it’s actually needed. If the intent of such a taxonomy is to help lawmakers write a law that only puts its focus on the edge players, that’s unlikely how it will remain. Once such a mapping is in place, the temptation (instead) will simply be to create new rules for each layer of the new stack.
A new taxonomy may sound good as a first pass, but it will inevitably create more problems than it solves.
Techdirt and EFF are collaborating on this Techdirt Greenhouse discussion. On October 6th from 9am to noon PT, we’ll have many of this series’ authors discussing and debating their pieces in front of a live virtual audience (register to attend here).