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ICANN bosses slam Net phone regulation

Lawmakers who define VoIP as phone technology will paint themselves "into a pretty big corner," Vint Cerf says.

Legislators must not make the mistake of subjecting voice over Internet Protocol offerings to the same rules as telephony services, the heads of the global Internet regulator said.

Vinton Cerf, chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, told an Internet governance roundtable in Sydney, Australia, that in his personal opinion, it was easy to answer the question of how to regulate VoIP.

"That's the wrong question," he said. "We don't regulate it."

"VoIP is really just another application on the Internet. Nothing special about it."
--Vint Cerf

Cerf--known as the "father of the Internet" for his part in developing the TCP/IP protocol that enables Internet communications--said legislators needed to update their thinking for the new generation of services.

"A problem in the regulatory world," he said, "is that communications media is particularly associated with the delivery service."

Consequently, Cerf said, regulators could not differentiate between regulation of normal telephony and VoIP, because to a casual observer they appeared to be the same technology, even though they were delivered over radically different mediums.

"My concern here is the fact that VoIP looks like and sounds like telephony," he said. "This is horribly misleading. To leap to that conclusion is extremely dangerous. VoIP is really just another application on the Internet. Nothing special about it."

If legislators choose to define VoIP the same way they do normal telephony, Cerf warned, "they will discover that they have legislated themselves into a pretty big corner."

Calling 911
ICANN Chief Executive Paul Twomey said his personal opinion was in line with Cerf's, and he weighed in to the debate on whether VoIP phones should be able to call emergency services numbers. Twomey said that regulators should not class VoIP phones as normal telephones and force providers to give access to emergency services.

"If it's a telephone number, as part of a numbering plan, it's supposed to have access to emergency services," Twomey clarified. However not all VoIP services are allocated a telephone number.

Cerf also addressed law enforcement agencies' concerns that VoIP technology would let criminals elude telecommunications interception.

"My reaction to this would be if you're too dumb to figure out how to do it (interception), then you don't deserve to," Cerf stated. He pointed out that handheld mobile devices such as BlackBerrys already included significant processing power that could allow criminals to encrypt their communications.

But regulation was not the only aspect of VoIP that Cerf had an opinion on; quality of service was also on his agenda. The ICANN chairman dismissed claims that consumers couldn't rely on the quality of VoIP calls and tried to give some perspective on the issue.

"Do you rely on e-mail, do you rely on Google? Do you rely on your mobile? Talk to me about reliable," he said.

"When we were first doing VoIP in 1975, we only had a 50-kilobit backbone, and 1,800 bits per second. It was highly compressed and sounded like a drunken Norwegian."

Renai LeMay of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.