BITAG: a new and important multi-stakeholder organization

The Broadband Internet Technology Advisory Group, or BITAG, is one of the newest multi-stakeholder organizations that deal with issues concerning the Internet. BITAG is a non-profit organization focused on bringing together engineers and technical experts to develop consensus on broadband network management practices and other related technical issues that can affect users' Internet experience, including the impact to and from applications, content and devices. I was involved in establishing BITAG in 2010 with a number of company representatives, including folks from the content industry (Disney), the device manufacturing sector (Cisco), and the advocacy community (Public Knowledge, an open Internet advocacy organization). This diverse group of companies, organizations and individuals was – and is – committed to finding ways to address the many network management and operational issues that affect the Internet by looking at their technological roots. We believe that taking many of the often contentious issues that arise regarding how the Internet is managed and examining them from a technical standpoint can both help improve the Internet’s functioning and reduce many of the bitter battles that can spiral into policy disputes or fragmentation. For example, this recent announcement from BITAG about its intent to study congestion management demonstrates that the organization is focused on improving the Internet experience and providing solutions.  

This report from Silicon Flatirons that summarizes a discussion I was part of helps a lot in coming to a better understanding of just what multi-stakeholder organizations are. First, these groups really don’t “govern” in the sense that government agencies do by ordering or mandating something to happen. But they do govern nonetheless by building a broad consensus on a course of action, which must eventually become accepted in the wider Internet community. The upshot is that without the credibility of broad consensus, the multi-stakeholder organization model simply doesn’t work.

Multi-stakeholder organizations do indeed reflect the Internet’s origins around openness, transparency, and collaboration. The collaborative nature of the multi-stakeholder decision-making process is why these organizations are so flexible and capable of helping the Internet adapt to changing business models and marketplace realities. To say that a multi-stakeholder approach has successfully governed the growth of the Internet is not just a convenient way of saying there is less need for government regulation. But multi-stakeholder organizations – like the Internet Society, or the Internet Engineering Task Force – have helped to effectively manage the Internet’s evolution to date, and have solved many of its most vexing problems with an eye to providing balanced solutions and preventing problems from festering into politicized disputes. Compare this model to regulatory agencies, which often underperform or cause stagnation through overregulation, and rarely suffer any direct consequences from doing so.

The mission of BITAG includes:

  • Educating policymakers on such technical issues;

  • Addressing specific technical matters in an effort to minimize related policy disputes;     

  • Serving as a sounding board for new ideas and network management practices.

 Specific BITAG functions can include:

  • Identifying "best practices" by broadband providers and other entities;

  • Providing technical guidance to industry and to the public; and /or

  • Issuing advisory opinions on the technical issues that may underlie disputes concerning broadband network management practices. 

On the whole, BITAG demonstrates again that the Internet community can look honestly at key Internet network management and operational issues and come up with improvements in a reasoned way. It is another example of the kind of voluntary group that has helped make the Internet a robust communications system.