• United States

Father knows best about net neutrality

Feb 20, 20064 mins

Testifying at a Feb. 7 Senate Commerce committee hearing, Google’s Vint Cerf asked senators not to let the phone companies mess up the Internet’s architectural model. Walter McCormick Jr., president of the U.S. Telecom Association, followed Cerf, stating that telecom companies will not do any of the evil things Cerf (often called the “Father of the Internet”) was worried about, but asking the senators not to block their ability to do so.

Many other speakers and many committee members let us know their opinions, but in the end the choice in this hearing came down to two parties: the telecom folk, who want the ability to extort money from companies using the Internet to deliver services to their customers, and those worried that anything of the sort would kill the generative powers of the Internet.

The hearing (see streaming video) concerned the concept of net neutrality. Pure net neutrality would mean that an ISP would not be able to differentiate its processing of different types of traffic. The alternative to a neutral network is an environment where the ISP could differentiate its processing of traffic types based on whatever grounds it wanted. The most commonly mentioned reasons for such differentiation are first, that an ISP offering services such as video or voice runs its own traffic, and at a higher priority than traffic from others offering competing services; and second, that a service provider, such as Google or Vonage, pays the ISP money to get its traffic prioritized (see Blocking the power of the Internet).

Cerf was quite eloquent – as he is wont to be – in both his oral and written testimony (list of the hearing’s witnesses and links to their formal testimony). He, along with a number of other witnesses, described the current state of competition in broadband services to different parts of the country. (That state is not very good. Only half of customers get any choice at all and a significant percentage has no way to get broadband Internet access.) They worried that letting ISPs (almost all telephone and cable TV companies) decide what content and applications their customers could get quality access to would destroy the ability of new services to get started, because they could not afford to pay the ISPs to get reasonable-quality access to the ISPs’ customers. One of this group, Gary Bachula, a vice president of the Internet2 consortium, said there was no reason for any traffic prioritization. Internet2’s research has shown that adding bandwidth was less expensive and better, he said.

The other side said it would never “block, impair or degrade content, applications or services.” (McCormick, who made this vow, was forced later in the hearing to admit that some ISPs were already blocking access to some services.) This group painted a dire picture of no additional deployment of broadband ISPs, because the ISPs would not be able to get enough money for the service to pay for the deployment. They were quite careful not to say just what they would do to get the money that would not involve blocking. We are left to guess.

This hearing came down to one group, including the Father of the Internet, saying that it is not time to break the model that created today’s incredibly important and dynamic Internet, and another group saying that the Internet will stop expanding unless its members can somehow get someone other than their customers to give them money to do what their customers already pay them to do. This is a case of Father Knows Best.

Disclaimer: No school operating in loco parentis always knows best, not even Harvard. But the above opinion on fatherly knowledge is my own.