Ringside at the Net Neutrality Smackdown
Ringside at the Net Neutrality Smackdown
Ringside at the Net Neutrality Smackdown

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    If today's Net Neutrality debate between Vint Cerf and Dave Farber were a wrestling match, I'd give it to Cerf on points. Nobody got pinned, but Farber spent a lot more time escaping and backing off of his arguments than did Cerf.

    The event at the Center for American Progress had all the build-up of a true wonk-a-thon. Vint Cerf, one of the writers of the fundamental computer code for the Internet, now working for Google, was up against Prof. Dave Farber, now from Carnegie Mellon, who was a teacher to the generation of computer scientists that invented the Internet. As with all build-ups, there was some let-down, as the discussion at times ranged far afield from the central Net Neutrality issue of whether discrimination should be permitted.

    From here, Cerf seemed to be on more solid ground as he argued in favor of Net Neutrality legislation based on the threats that have been made by AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre, among others, to levy extra charges on companies in order to make certain that Google and Yahoo can reach the people who want to reach them.

    Farber had to distance himself from the telephone company position with which he agrees, saying it was “beyond me why Whitaker stirred up that hornet's nest.” At the same time, he said the “breadth of the legislation was scary.”

    Cerf said it was those threats by Whitaker that led to the need for Net Neutrality legislation now. Farber disagreed, saying he preferred to wait until a problem developed, at which time Congress could act quickly to remedy it. Farber seemed more worried about the solution than the problem — about the prospect of “hazy” legislation than even recognizing the threats that the telephone and cable companies posed to the open Internet. He wanted government kept out of regulating the Internet.

    If a problem did develop, Farber said, he and others in the field agreed that antitrust actions could also provide a procedure that could “rapidly adjudicate” any disagreements. Antitrust suits, he said, could be better than the FCC complaint procedures. He also said that Congress could “react rather quickly” if a real problem developed.

    Farber was forced later on, however, to concede that perhaps “rapid” wasn't the right word to describe antitrust suits. (The suit against AT&T was filed in 1974. It was settled in 1982.) Cerf responded, “Dave shot himself in the foot,” argued that under proposed legislation, any complaints filed over Net Neutrality with the Federal Communications Commission would have to be settled within a designated period of time.

    He also tried to argue that Net Neutrality legislation would effect network management. Cerf responded that management control over rough patches in transmissions (jitter) is not discrimination, only legitimate network management.

    Farber also was forced to concede that those who oppose Net Neutrality have not lived up to their promises to improve the network. Farber noted he lives in a state where the carrier promised upgrades, but hasn't done them, even in dense areas like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and even Harrisburg.

    Farber said he wasn't there to defend the telephone companies, but to argue that the dispute over Net Neutrality doesn't lead “down a path we don't want” if Congress passes legislation.

    In contrast, Cerf made it clear that he was speaking not only for Google, but for all Internet users, and took pains several times to establish that the threat came from the words of telephone company executives. He didn't have to run away from those who advocate the same policy positions as he does. The difference speaks volumes.

    You can hear the audio here