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I have read with interest and disappointment the FBI/DoJ’s objections to keeping IP Telephony (in the form of Jeff Pulver’s Free World Dialup service) as an unregulated service. Of course, they invoked the usual Post-9/11 fear factor associated with potential criminal and/or terrorist use of the network and the difficulty in applying CALEA wiretapping services to a Peer-to-Peer network.

The semantic debate over whether or not Free World Dialup is a telephone service is ultimately fruitless — of course it is! And to exist in an unregulated status simply because it does not interconnect with the PSTN clips its wings before it is even able to get into the air. We need to be able to call the billions of telephones worldwide from our SIP phones or they are useless.

The DoJ/FBI objections and the unsurprising support from ILECs (who, quite frankly, needed an excuse to thwart services like FWD) underscores a key weakness of SIP and of services like FWD. It’s the same problem suffered by file sharing services like Napster and MP3.com … that problem is the fact that within the network hierarchy there is a single flashpoint that serves as a lightning rod for regulatory and legal wranglings. In short, there is someone to sue, someone to stop. When the telecom gestapo arrives and asks to be taken to our leader, there is ultimately one place for them to go to.

Jeff Pulver has bravely stepped forward to serve as this lightning rod, but his resources are ultimately limited when compared to the forces that are aligning against him.

The battle lines are being drawn not between IP Telephony and Regulators; they are being drawn between Decentralized Telephony and the Incumbents. The BattleFront is SIP, and though SIP was conceived of as a Peer-to-Peer technology, it is not being utilized as such. There is still a parent-child relationship between the SIP Proxy and the SIP Agent.

For the technology to survive regulatory and legal wrangling intact, it must address the forces that oppose it with a technological fix. When there’s no one to sue — no single body to regulate — there is no practicable way to stop the spread of a truly peer-to-peer technology. The economics of trying to control it simply make all resistance futile. When the genie’s out of the bottle you must learn to co-exist; to adapt; to evolve.

“The Internet sees censorship as damage and routes around it.” The axiom applies here, too. Regulation and impingement by incumbents is censorship and now we, as technical minds, must help to adapt technology to route around it. Propagating the technology of the so-called “softswitch” from a hub-spoke model to a mandelbrot is that next step.

We stand poised at an opportunity; not an obstacle. A global interconnected network of simple, lightweight softswitches run by enthusiasts (and supporters, and eventually all of us), each functioning as peer to the other, allowing seamless calling and registration, redundancy, and transparency, will represent the survivability of truly decentralized telephony.

In order for this to work, of course, someone has to give away their technology: much as the folks at Nullsoft gave away GNUTella, and much as a community is growing around projects like eDonkey and BitTorrent.

As Sting said (I sound like Jeff here) “If you love something, set it free.” For us to truly realize the potential of decentralized telecommunications, for the technology to impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and in order to stir service innovation in the telecommunications industry for the first time in its history, we need to set the softswitch free.

-Ian.

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