Internet Policy: Most Important Book In Years is Now Out

Professor Barbara van Schewick's book, Internet Architecture and Innovation, is reviewed by Center for Internet and Society visiting scholar, Marvin Ammori, on his website:

There’s a new book out on Internet policy that is essential reading for anyone interested in Internet policy—and probably for anyone interested in the law, economics, technology, or start-ups. I recommend it to everyone. It’s that good.

Barbara van Schewick’s new book, “Internet Architecture and Innovation,” is one of the very few books in my field in the same league as Larry Lessig’s Code, in 2000, and Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, in 2006, in terms of its originality, depth, and importance to Internet policy and other disciplines. I expect the book to affect how people think about the Internet; about the interactions between law and technical architectures in all areas of law; about entrepreneurship in general. I also think her insights on innovation economics, which strike me as far more persuasive than lawyers’ usual assumptions, should influence “law and economics” thinking for the better.


Barbara van Schewick is well-known to Internet lawyers as a brilliant, extremely thorough lawyer. And engineer. And expert on innovation economics. She was (with Yale’s Jack Balkin and Harvard’s Charles Nesson) one of three academics joining consumer groups to prompt the FCC’s 2008 investigation of Comcast interferinge with peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent. The FCC’s 2009 open Internet proposal, in its background policy discussion, cites her scholarly work far more than any other scholar. Her law review articles advance novel, seminal critiques of what economists considered “conventional wisdom” on the one-monopoly profit principle and the role of competition in ensuring open technology platforms. This scholarship was influential not only in the US, but also in Europe and Canada’s recent Internet policy proceeding.


This is one of those rare books where every chapter is full of novel and important ideas. But I’ll tell you about my very favorite part. In the eighth chapter, beginning with “The Value of Many Innovators,” van Schewick presents the stories of how several major technologies were born: Google, Flickr, EBay, 37Signals, Twitter, and even the World Wide Web, email, and web-based email. I had always suspected that the “accidental” beginnings and unexpected successes of these technologies were a series flukes, one fluke after another. Rather, van Schewick explains, it’s a pattern. Her models actually predict the pattern accurately–unlike other academic models like the efficient market hypothesis and theories on valuing derivatives. These entrepreneurial stories (or case studies, to academics) are eye-opening; they’re also counter-intuitive unless you consider the management science and evolutionary economics van Schewick applies to analyze them. So if you wondered what the invention of Flickr, Google, Twitter, and the World Wide Web had in common, van Schewick answers the question.


But don’t be so intimidated by the title that you miss out on van Schewick’s important ideas.

For the terminally intimidated, I recommend beginning with van Schewick’s short, concrete, straight-forward testimony to governments (see here and here and here) and an amicus brief.


For others, I will list the things-that-I-know-scare-you-but-should-not.

1. Her name. “van Schewick.” What an intimidating, scary German name, worthy of a Dr. Strangelove scene or an Austin Powers movie. I know. But no worries. Despite her meticulous thoroughness, her German accent, and her “van”–her academic writing is gentle and clear. It’s not turgid like those H-Germans, Habermas or Heidegger. In fact, she knows her book “crosses a number of disciplines,” like engineering, economics, and law and had consciously aimed to make it “accessible to all” of us who have different backgrounds. There are zero equations in the text. And equations can be scary to lawyers and law students.

2. Equations. Nope. No need to worry. Not one of those books.

3. The difficult concepts. van Schewick is addressing difficult questions. She is not addressing fluff. But that’s a strength. She cuts through the complexity to put her finger on the key issues, to address all counterarguments and angles, and to make sense of it for the reader.

4. Length. It is almost 400 pages. But van Schewick includes several shortcuts–like three charts of page references as guides for reading the book to answer particular questions. (Policymakers will likely rely on those charts.) The way I look at it: the book itself is a short-cut. It may take one or two weeks to read. To get a similar grasp of these issues, I would otherwise have had to spend ten long years locked in a library, reading and analyzing the global literature on Internet engineering, economics and innovation, legal policy, and business-managerial decision-making, all while speaking often to the top thinkers worldwide in all these areas and eating brain foods to increase my mental ability to keep up with the task. But, luckily for me, van Schewick spent a decade exploring all these issues, apparently locked in the architectural economist’s equivalent of the Room of Requirement, surrounded by books, some full of equations, and top experts.

5. Abstraction. The book at times sets forth general frameworks and arguments that go beyond, and therefore abstract from, particular stories and economic conditions. Very abstract models can be hard to wrap the mind around. But van Schewick’s models are not too abstract. Plus, a model for understanding complexity is the point of the book (and of most non-fiction books I have read, from The Tipping Point and Outliers to Freakanomics and The Origin of the Species). Such books are meant to make broader sense of particular phenomena.