What was billed as the great net neutrality debate of the season started off July 17 with the participants in complete agreement. Fortunately for the audience here, it didnt stay that way. But by the time the debate was over, the most startling fact was how close the two sides were in their positions.
On one side of the debate was Vinton Cerf, called by many the "Father of the Internet." Cerf, now chief Internet evangelist for Google, is credited with inventing the TCP/IP protocol that makes the Internet work.
On the other side was Carnegie Mellon University professor David Farber, frequently called the "Grandfather of the Internet." Farbers students went on to invent most of the critical aspects of the Internet today.
The initial statements at the debate—which was sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank—bemoaned what both sides call a "Bumper Sticker War."
Both debaters agreed that the nearly constant stream of TV and newspaper ads surrounding this issue muddy understanding and reduce the debate on net neutrality to a series of slogans.
Cerf said the primary reason that he and Google are concerned about the net neutrality issue is a series of threats made by AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre to refuse carriage of traffic bound for sites such as Google if the Mountain View, Calif., company doesnt pay for the privilege.
Cerf said that if people had a wide choice of Internet providers, this wouldnt matter. But he said that the fact is, most people have a choice of only one or two broadband providers.
"Most people have a choice of DSL or cable, but not both," Cerf said. "At best its a duopoly."
Cerf did say other avenues exist for preventing abuse by broadband providers. "The Federal Trade Commission, the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] and the Department of Justice all have jurisdiction in this," he said. "If a broadband supplier abused their control by limiting choice, consumers could file complaints."
Cerf said he thought things were better before 2005 because broadband providers were controlled by common carriage rules that prevented providers from discriminating in terms of what traffic was carried.
Farber, on the other hand, said he worries that congressional meddling might prevent the next major innovations from coming to the Internet.
He agreed with Cerf that there are mechanisms in place now to protect against abuse by broadband providers.
However, he said he doesnt believe that the FCC has an unblemished record in providing such protection. In addition, he said FCC decisions can be tied up in the courts for a long time, delaying enforcement.
But he also said the FCC can act quickly, such as when it moved to require telephone companies that provide Internet service to also allow VOIP (voice over IP) calls.
What Farber is most worried about, he said, is poorly drafted legislation that would leave regulation of the Internet open to broad interpretations that could lead to unintended restrictions on its use.
Farber said regulators, in an attempt to somehow make the Internet more fair, could find that it backfires on them when they try to legislate fairness. "The network never has been a fair place," he said.
While Cerf said the Internet flourished when common carriage rules applied, Farber argued that such regulation could become a slippery slope if Congress gets involved.
Farber said that although it made some sense to use what he called an "active network," the question becomes, Who controls it? And, he asked, "Who controls the controllers?" He said the Internet is not an entity that the United States can control; it has become a global resource.
Cerf agreed with Farbers concern about poorly conceived and drafted legislation. He said he wants to see laws that are precise in what they require and that the process be transparent "if only as a warning to others."
Farber agreed. "What I want is to make sure that what Congress does doesnt make matters worse," he said.
Farber joined Cerf in criticizing the statements by AT&Ts Whitacre that kicked off the net neutrality controversy. "Its beyond me why Whitacre stirred up this hornets nest," Cerf said, adding that it made proposed legislation in the U.S. House and Senate too broad.
"The Congress seems to be very confused," Farber said. "They dont understand what the network does."
He said that, as a result, the House version of a bill that attempts to control access is in danger of becoming what he called a "garbage dump" of overly broad and miscast legislation that could damage the Internet by limiting or reducing innovation. "They always pile stuff on, usually at the last minute, that can do harm," Farber said.
Cerf agreed that whatever net neutrality legislation is introduced—if any—must be unambiguous.