Policymakers proposing Internet regulation must settle on a solid definition for today's Internet or face increased confusion as the technology matures, a high-profile Internet think tank warned today.
The advice came in a paper drafted by MCI WorldCom vice president Vinton Cerf and Corporation for National Research Initiatives president Robert Kahn, who jointly helped create the technology that allows computers connected to the Internet to communicate.
"Governments are passing legislation pertaining to the Internet without ever specifying to what the law applies and to what it does not apply," the pair wrote. "This area is badly in need of clarification."
The debate comes as telephone, cable and network companies spend billions of dollars to merge and upgrade networks for a high-speed Net. At the same time, firm have turned up the heat in Washington, D.C., pressing for rules favorable to their own networks, and have even gone to court to fight policies that they believe give other firms a strategic advantage.
The Internet Policy Institute, which released Cerf and Kahn's paper today, was formed in November to highlight Internet issues. Today's paper was the first in a 12-part series designed to provide background as well as offer possible policy recommendations for the current administration and presidential candidates.
In the paper, Kahn and Cerf outlined the history of the Net's technical development, noting that its evolution has taken the technology well beyond its original role as a series of networked computers.
"In U.S. telecommunications law, distinctions are made between cable, satellite broadcast and common carrier [telephone] services. These and many other distinctions all blur in the backdrop of the Internet," the pair wrote.
"Should broadcast stations be viewed as Internet service providers when their programming is made available in the Internet environment? Is use of cellular telephones considered part of the Internet?" they asked.
The issues raised by Cerf and Kahn have already begun rippling uncomfortably through policy circles in the United States.
The two-year battle over access to cable TV lines--sparked by AT&T's rampant acquisitions of cable companies--has been the most contentious fight so far.
Because cable Internet lines are regulated very differently than traditional phone lines, AT&T and the other cable companies are allowed to limit cable Net subscribers to a single affiliated Internet service provider (ISP), such as Excite@Home or Road Runner. Telephone companies and ISPs say this is unfair, and that they too should be able to offer Net service directly to cable subscribers.
A cross-border legal battle brewing in Canada is also highlighting the increasingly tense relationship between Net companies and traditional broadcasters trying to protect their own business.
Start-up iCraveTV.com is capturing broadcast TV signals and sending them out for free, uncut and uninterrupted, over the Net. This would be likely be illegal if done in the United States, but iCraveTV's chief executive Bill Craig says Canadian copyright law allows his company to use the signals without the permission of the original programmers.
Nevertheless, Canadian and U.S. television stations have said they would sue iCraveTV to keep their signals from being sent out over the Net.
Most of the debate in Washington has focused on specific industry concerns. Telephone, cable, and Net content companies all have lobbied specifically for loosening regulations they say hamper their own Internet business strategies.
"It is clear that there has been a differential application of rules as they relate to the Internet," said Donald Trigg, a spokesman for iAdvance, a coalition of local telephone companies and computer firms aimed at loosening regulations governing high-speed data transmissions. "Congress needs to recognize that fact and move aggressively during the next session to address it."
Cerf and Kahn recommended adopting a definition of the Internet that would include both the Net-specific technology and the underlying communications infrastructure. They stopped short of addressing the specific copyright and access issues that have brought network and content companies to court, however.