Tech Industry

'Series of tubes' senator convicted of corruption

Ted Stevens made Internet history with an inept invocation of a "series of tubes" during the Net neutrality debate. His newest debacle: a corruption conviction a week before the election.

Until Monday, Sen. Ted Stevens was best known in technology circles for his "series of tubes" analogy. Now he'll be known for his jury conviction on corruption charges.

A federal jury in Washington, D.C., convicted the Alaska Republican of all seven charges of accepting gifts and home renovations from a wealthy oil contractor and then lying about them on official documents.

Sen. Ted Stevens has been found guilty on all counts in a corruption case. U.S. Senate

Stevens is running for re-election next week. Because it's too late for the Republican Party to remove his name from the ballot and because it's not terribly likely that Alaskans will vote for a convicted felon, Stevens' conviction will aid the Democrats in assembling a filibuster-proof Senate majority. (They're also hoping to pick up seats in races in Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.)

The irony is that Stevens' famous analogy of a "series of tubes" was an entirely reasonable one. Electrical engineers have long used the analogy of pipes and tubes to explain voltage (water pressure) and current (gallons per second). The Unix operating system and its progeny use the term "pipes" to describe interprocess communications.

Similarly, Internet engineers on discussion groups as august as Nanog regularly toss around terms like "fat long pipes." And an Internet RFC from as long ago as 1989 refers to "filling the pipe" so "that the sender of data can always put data onto the network." The word "tubes" has been used in antispam discussions years before anyone outside of Washington, D.C., heard of Stevens. And Princeton computer science Professor Ed Felten, to his credit, noted that the anti-Stevens criticism "seems a bit unfair."

What turned Stevens into an Internet laughingstock was twofold: 1. An especially inept invocation of the "pipes" or "tubes" analogy. His additional "it's not a big truck" improvisation didn't help. 2. The fact that he dared to use the analogy to assail politically popular Net neutrality regulations. (If he had used it to call for such rules, you can be sure that the online chortling would have been muted or nonexistent.)

But poking fun at the senator, who is also known for his tantrums over the "Bridge to Nowhere," misses the chance to critique actual legislative failings. Here are some of them:

• Like vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, Stevens has been a fast friend of Hollywood's content industries. Stevens said at one hearing that a broadcast flag was necessary to curb Internet piracy of TV shows. "It is a subject that requires an act of Congress, in my opinion," he said.

• Stevens co-sponsored, along with Democratic senator Ernest Hollings, what's probably the most ill-conceived technology bill in recent memory (and that's saying something). It was called the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act and would require practically any hardware or software to include embedded copy-protection technology.

• Stevens used his position as chairman of the Senate committee that writes Internet regulations to call for a crackdown on perfectly legal online porn depicting consenting adults. "My advice is you tell your clients they better do it soon, because we'll mandate it if they don't," Stevens informed a representative of the adult entertainment industry.

• Stevens was no foe of Internet taxes. In 2006, he wanted to expand existing taxes on telephone systems to include all "communications" services, whatever that means. "I believe fax is a communication, I think e-mail is a communication, and I do believe they all should contribute," he said. Undaunted, Stevens suggested that idea again the following year.

• In 2005, Stevens was the senator who seemed to call for resurrecting the justly reviled Communications Decency Act. "We ought to find some way to say, 'Here is a block of channels--whether it's delivered by broadband, by VoIP, by whatever it is--to a home that is clear of the stuff you don't want your children to see,'" he told reporters at the time, later saying he was referring to regulatory "tiers" like the movie "rating system."

• Stevens also supported an ostensibly anti-phishing bill called the Anti-Phishing Consumer Protection Act. Earlier this year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation described it as "a bill that would expand trademark law, limit consumer access to information about competitive products, and eviscerate key protections for anonymous speech."

As CNET's 2006 tech voter guide shows, Stevens voted for the Communications Decency Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Real ID Act--and against an effort to keep the Internet tax-free. He scored an unremarkable 53 percent overall on tech-friendly votes in Congress.

Such stances cement Stevens' true technology legacy. Sadly, the "tubes" metaphor is one of the few ventures into Internet policy he got halfway right.