Technologists Tackle Net Neutrality

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It might have been subtitled "The Impossible Dream."

Two voices of Internet experience squared off Monday looking to answer the $1 million-a-day-question--What is Net Neutrality? At the end of the day, the answer was still not clear, but the question engendered some lively debate, plus yet another shot at Senator Ted Stevens' "tubes" explanation of the Internet.

Part of the problem, agreed Vint Cerf, CIE (chief Internet Evangelist) for Google and his opponent, Dave Farber, Carnegie Mellon professor of Computer Science and Public Policy, is that the debate in the general public--engendered by massive ad lobbying campaigns--has been reduced to bumper stickers.

The venue was "progressive" think tank Center for American Progress in Washington.

Farber, former chief technologist at the FCC, was part of a group of academics that have lobbied against strong network neutrality language in the telecom bill rewrite. He said he was concerned that hazy "Internet" law would give Congress the opportunity to try to regulate online adult content as it has broadcast and, he argues, would like to do with cable. It would be "irresistible," he said, for Congress to stop if it decided that it really doesn't want x-rated content on the Web, content that is protected and appropriate to some audiences.

Farber's basic argument boiled down to his concern that "hazy" net neutrality regulation, adjudicated by the FCC, which does not have a history of nimbleness or subtlety of handling complaints, would hinder the evolution of a rapidly changing communications systems. He pointed to the "unbundling nightmares" of the 1990's after the 1996 Telecommunications Act rewrite that was meant to spur the rise of competitive local exchange carriers and instead, as Cerf put it, "littered the landscape with their bodies."

To "weld" regulation onto the fast-changing Internet could be a crippling encumbrance, Farber suggested. He said companies could use the regulatory process as a weapon by filing complaints that would stall competition and that the FTC, FCC and Justice had among them sufficient power already to handle bad actors if and when they surfaced.

Cerf, who has been lobbying for Google in support of government-mandated net neutrality, said  that he didn't want to wait until something bad happened to act. Besides, he said, bad actors had already surfaced in the form of some networks trying to bock VoIP providers, and others were talking tough..
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Chief among them is AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre, who suggested in a interview with BusinessWeek about his desire to get a return on network capital investment  that he wasn't going to give his network away to companies like Google. That was the shot heard round the 'net. Farber, for one, said he could not fathom why Whitacre had wanted to "stir up a hornets" nest with that comment.

Cerf argued that it was not new regulation his side was arguing for (one of the bumper sticker" simplifications he was there to dispel), but a return of recently axed regulation under which the free and open Internet had grown and flourished. Specifically, common carrier status for the Internet, which the FCC, supported by the Supreme Court, changed last year for cable, and soon after for telephone networks.

Without that common carrier protection, Cerf said, and without real and broad-based competition for broadband access, networks will charge companies to reach users, which is counter to the model on which the Internet was built. It was the lack of competition--nine out of 10 people have a choice between only two options, cable or broadband, many can get only one or the other, he said. "If there were lots more choice in broadband, Cerf said, I wouldn't be sitting here arguing for net neutrality.

Both agreed that a lot of legislator "didn't get" the network neutrality issue, though Cerf said he had certainly tried in briefing with key staffers. When asked to identify which Congresspeople "got it," Cerf identified Senator John Sununu (R-N.H.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Farber did not name names.

When asked who didn't get it, Cerf made a by-now-unveiled reference to Senator Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, saying: "Do a Google search for "tube" and "Internet" and see what comes up." (The top five hits were all related to Stevens' much-lampooned explanation of the Internet during the committee vote that saw a deadlocked network neutrality amendment vote 11 to 11, send the amendment down to defeat.)

By debate's end the two had agreed to disagree on the need for legislation, but agreed that if there were mandated net neutrality, the bill language needed to be specific.

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