Father of Web knows best

Testifying at a Feb. 7 Senate Commerce committee hearing, Google’s Vint Cerf asked senators not to let the phone companies mess up the Internet.

Many other speakers let us know their opinions, but in the end the choice in this hearing came down to two parties: the telecom folk, who want the ability to extort money from companies using the Internet to deliver services to their customers, and those worried that anything of the sort would kill the generative powers of the Internet.

The hearing concerned the concept of net neutrality. Pure net neutrality would mean that an ISP would not be able to differentiate its processing of different types of traffic. The alternative to a neutral network is an environment where the ISP could differentiate its processing of traffic types based on whatever grounds it wanted. The most commonly mentioned reasons for such differentiation are first, that an ISP offering services such as video or voice runs its own traffic, and at a higher priority than traffic from others offering competing services; and second, that a service provider, such as Google or Vonage, pays the ISP money to get its traffic prioritized.

Cerf was quite eloquent in his testimony. He worried that letting ISPs decide what content their customers could get quality access to would destroy the ability of new services to get started, because they could not afford to pay the ISPs to get reasonable-quality access to the ISPs’ customers.

The other side said it would never degrade content. This group painted a dire picture of no additional deployment of broadband ISPs, because the ISPs would not be able to get enough money for the service to pay for the deployment.

This hearing came down to one group, including Cerf, the Father of the Internet, saying that it is not time to break the model that created today’s Internet, and another group saying that the Internet will stop expanding unless its members can get someone other than their customers to give them money. This is a case of Father Knows Best.

Disclaimer: No school operating in loco parentis always knows best, not even Harvard. But the above opinion on fatherly knowledge is my own.

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Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached atsob@sobco.com.

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