I’ve been following, but not commenting, on a comment of Cory Doctorow‘s whose online disscussion Donna has thoughtfully assembled, to wit "The last twenty years were about technology. The next twenty years are about policy."
As one might expect from my background, I disagree strongly with the first half of Cory’s assertion — in fact, one might easily construe my position as "It has been, and will be, about technology and policy." The two are inescapably intertwined and progress in one will unavoidably lead to issues with the other.
On the other hand, Cory can be forgiven for his contruction of the issue, since so much of the history of the internet has been reformulated to suggest that, in its early days, it was a kind of techno-geek utopia where all that mattered was putting together a great technology. But a more careful reading shows that policy issues were there all the time; there just were some very clever people involved who worked very hard to keep "outsiders" from participating in the policy discussions.
(For those of you who have attended ILaw, recall the summary of Dave Clark‘s strategy to limit membership in key committees by giving them boring names and changing them often, or the whole story about Jon Postel and the DNS .root).
So long as the internet was a technological backwater, limiting access to policy development by interested constituencies could be achieved through the kind of technological "high priesthood" that has marked any number of other technological developments (c.f., nuclear power). But, at the point you want/get participation from a large enough community, you have to give constituencies a voice, a role — otherwise, they’ll just come in and take it.
So, in that sense, Cory may be right — 20 years ago, the internet ran along just fine with a set of benevolent rulers dictating policy. But there are too many users, with too many interests, involved today. And new technologies are being developed, and policy is going to have to get made.
It may look like it’s all about policy today, but it’s just that we’re struggling to find the best way to do that in the face of a growing set of powerful constituencies, many of whom have a far less subtle appreciation of the implications of the technology than the policymakers of the past had — and, in many respects, that’s a lot harder than just developing a new technology!
(See, for example, this and compare with the good old days – skip the question about protocols and scroll down to the DNS/RFC 349 discussion; this article even calls Jon the "’god’ of the Internet")