Technologists square off on Net neutrality

Why do Internet pioneers Vint Cerf and Dave Farber disagree over whether the feds should mandate Net neutrality?

WASHINGTON--Two Internet pioneers dueled on Monday over whether proposed Net neutrality regulations supported by companies like Google and are the best way to prevent "abusive" behavior by broadband providers.

A debate here hosted by the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan research institute that brags of challenging "conservative thinking," pitted Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, who co-developed the Internet's backbone protocols and has emerged as a leading proponent of congressional antidiscrimination mandates for network operators, against Dave Farber, a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist widely considered to be a "grandfather" of the Internet.

The pair of technologists appeared to agree on at least one thing: Network operators, in general, shouldn't be allowed to interfere with Net users' activities. Where they disagreed was on the role that Congress and federal regulators should play in the ongoing debate over so-called Net neutrality, the idea that network operators must generally give equal treatment to all content that travels over their pipes.

Without legislation that expressly bars network operators from engaging in such prioritization, start-up Web innovators will suffer and consumers may have to pay higher prices to reach the content they want, Cerf warned.

"I am very concerned that we do not have adequate competition today to act as a restraint on abusive practices on some of the broadband carriers," Cerf said, "and until we have that kind of competition, we still need oversight and some kind of constraints."

When asked by a Comcast representative in the audience whether the same antidiscrimination mandate should apply to browsers, operating systems and search engines like Google, Cerf dismissed the analogy as a "red herring." (One U.S. House of Representatives member, in fact, had put forth such a proposal, and one Senate Republican confessed to having a parallel idea up his sleeve, though he never formally introduced it.)

"There is plenty of competition and choice" in that arena, so new rules aren't needed, Cerf said.

Monday's event came as a massive communications bill, criticized by Net neutrality proponents like Cerf for failing to include adequate protections, awaits a vote by the full Senate. It remains unclear how soon the vote will occur.

Farber said he opposed the antidiscrimination language Net neutrality advocates are pushing, because the proposals are too "hazy" and could create a "slippery slope" to even broader regulations.

"I could see some future congressional politicians who would say, 'Well, you know, we really don't want traffic on the Net that, for instance, is X-rated, and we'd like to stop that,'" he said.

The most efficient way to deal with allegations of "real anticompetitive behavior" is through traditional antitrust and consumer protection avenues at agencies like the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission, he said. (Farber worked at the FCC during the Clinton administration.)

At times, each technologist voiced exasperation about the direction in which the ongoing battle has turned. Cerf said it was time to renew "careful consideration" of the issue rather than "hurling bumper stickers back and forth at each other."

The debate has turned into a "show," with "everything in the kitchen sink...brought to bear under the Net neutrality banner," Farber said, adding, "I think it's obscured the fundamental question that should be addressed, and that's the future of our communications systems."

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