Internet pioneers debate net neutrality

Internet pioneers David Farber and Vinton Cerf debated net neutrality Monday as the U.S. Senate prepares to consider a related bill.

A net neutrality law isn't needed because the U.S. already has antitrust laws that would keep broadband carriers from acting in an uncompetitive manner, Internet pioneer David Farber said Monday in a debate against TCP/IP co-creator Vinton Cerf.

The two squared off at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., as the U.S Senate prepares to consider a wide-ranging broadband bill. Farber, a computer science and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said that Congress should not pass a law prohibiting large broadband providers such as AT&T and Comcast from block or slowing access to competing Web content.

If Congress decides it can regulate broadband carriers, its a small step to Congress also regulating Internet content, Farber said. "Given a foot in the door, I think that door will open," he said.

The door is already open, said Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, with Congress attempting to regulate Internet content in several areas. At the debate, audience members mentioned regulations requiring that Internet providers allow wiretapping capabilities for law enforcement and a recent effort to outlaw Internet gambling in the U.S.

The bill before the Senate would streamline local franchising rules and allow telecom carriers to offer television service over Internet Protocol and includes a list of rights for Internet users, but doesn't include strong net neutrality rules, critics say. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, on Friday repeated his intention to "do everything to block this bill and kill it" without stronger net neutrality provisions.

Net neutrality provisions would not be new regulation, Cerf said. In August 2005, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) removed "common carrier" requirements from DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) providers, ending the rule that they carry all traffic, he said.

"We had something taken away, which I think was a very important principle," Cerf said.

But Farber, creator of the first distributed computer system, said there's little evidence so far of a problem with broadband providers blocking competing content. A poorly written law could cause unintended consequences, he added.

Instead, antitrust lawsuits against carriers that block or slow competing content would work as well as a law, he said.

But antitrust lawsuits could take years, and most broadband customers have little or no choice of providers, Cerf said.

One audience member asked Cerf if search engine, browser or operating system vendors should also face net neutrality rules. Those are different markets than broadband, where most U.S. residents have one or two providers, Cerf answered.

Internet users have several choices of search engines and can switch with "zero pain," he said. "It's not so simple to switch back and forth between broadband carriers," he said. "What's worse than a regulated monopoly? The answer is, an unregulated monopoly."

Farber urged people on both sides of the net neutrality debate to approach the complicated issue with fewer TV ads that aim for emotions over facts. There's "too many bumper stickers, too much noise, and not enough facts in digestible form being put up there," he said.

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