WASHINGTON—What was billed as the great net neutrality debate of the season started off with the participants in complete agreement. Fortunately for the audience, it didnt stay that way. Yet by the time the debate was over, the most startling fact was how close the two sides were in their positions.
The debaters were 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 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 television and newspaper ads surrounding this issue really work to reduce understanding in the issues and do a lot to reduce the debate on net neutrality to a series of slogans.
Cerf said that the primary reason that he, and Google, are concerned about the net neutrality issue is because of a series of threats made by AT&T CEO Ed Whittaker to refuse carriage of traffic bound for sites such as Google if the company didnt 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. He noted that things had changed greatly since the days of dial-up access when users could access the Internet using many different ISPs.
“At best its a duopoly,” he said.
Cerf did admit that other avenues to prevent abuse by broadband providers do exist. “The Federal Trade Commission, the FCC and the Department of Justice all have jurisdiction in this,” Cerf said.
“If a broadband supplier abused their control by limiting choice, consumers could file complaints,” he said.
Cerf said that he thought things were better before 2005 when broadband providers were controlled by common carriage rules that prevented providers from discriminating in terms of what traffic was carried. “It protected the Internet,” he said.
Professor Farber, on the other hand, said that he worried about too much Congressional meddling, if only because it might prevent the next major innovations from coming to the Internet.
He noted that he agreed with Cerf that there are plenty of mechanisms in place now to protect against abuse by broadband providers.
He did note, however that he doesnt believe that the FCC has an unblemished record in such protection. He also noted that the FCC can have its decisions tied up in courts for a very long time, delaying enforcement.
But he also noted that the FCC can act quickly, such as when it acted to require phone companies that provided 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 the use of the Internet.
He said that regulators, in an attempt to somehow make the Internet more fair, could actually end up restricting access. “The net work never has been a fair place,” he said.
Cerf responded, saying that the Internet flourished when common carriage rules applied, but Farber argued that such regulation could become a slippery slope if Congress gets involved.
He said that while he agreed that it made some sense to use what he called an “active net work,” he said that the question then would become who controls it.
And, he said, “who controls the controllers?” He noted that the Internet is not an entity that the U.S. can control; it has become a global resource.
Cerf then agreed with Farbers concern about poorly conceived and drafted legislation. He said that he wanted to see laws that were precise in what they required, and that the process be transparent “if only as a warning to others,” he said.
Farber agreed. “What I want is to make sure that what Congress does doesnt make matters worse,” he said.
He then joined Cerf in criticizing the statements by AT&Ts Whittaker that kicked off the whole net neutrality controversy. “Its beyond me why Whittaker stirred up this hornets nest,” Cerf said, adding that it helped make much of the proposed legislation too broad, in his opinion.
“The Congress seems to be very confused,” Farber said. “They dont understand what the net work does.”
He said that as a result, the bill is in danger of becoming what he called a “garbage dump” of overly broad and miscast legislation that could cause damage to the Internet .
“They always pile stuff on, usually at the last minute, that can do harm,” Farber said.
Cerf agreed that whatever legislation is introduced about net neutrality—if any is introduced at all—must be unambiguous. And both speakers agreed that they hated the term net neutrality, if only because of the “Bumper Sticker War.”