Past Event

The Great Debate

What Is Net Neutrality?

12:00 AM - 11:59 PM EDT

The Great Debate: What Is Net Neutrality?

Featured Speakers:
Vinton G. Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google
Dave Farber, Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University

Moderated by:
Carl Malamud, Senior Fellow and Chief Technology Officer, Center for American Progress

Summary by Pete Backof

In navigating the complex issue of “net neutrality,” the government should protect consumers’ rights amid a rapidly changing and dynamic Internet. Two experts agreed on that much Monday during a panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress, but they disagreed on how to do that without stifling innovation.

Bringing together two of the Internet’s founding figures, the Center welcomed Vint Cerf, Vice-President of Google; and Dave Farber, Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Carl Malamud, the Center’s Chief Technology Officer, moderated.

Cerf began by quickly surveying the history of net neutrality. From its inception, the Internet has been open to any kind of application or content provider, and those providers could be accessed by any Internet user over a neutral network. “People didn’t have to get permission” to try new ideas, said Cerf, which “helped to stimulate and sustain innovation.”

In a competitive and innovation-rich environment, Internet Service Providers acted as neutral facilitators between content providers and consumers. Consumers paid carrier companies to access the Web, but once they got there they could tap into the full range of content. The recent shift to broadband Internet service, though, creates “a significantly different environment,” according to Cerf.

Compared to the age of dial-up connections, consumers have fewer broadband service carriers to choose from. It is, said Cerf, “at best a duopoly, and half the time not even that much.” Those broadband companies are pushing for the ability to charge content providers, in addition to consumers, who use their networks. The danger is that discrimination will result based on one’s ability to pay, meaning the Internet will no longer be neutral for creative innovation. Instead it will be biased toward big businesses that can afford space on a high-speed Internet. Such a model “will seriously inhibit innovation on the network,” particularly if consumers have no choice in Internet access.

Farber, while largely agreeing with Cerf on the dangers of monopolistic broadband carriers, cautioned against uninformed government interference in a rapidly changing field. We must, he said, “make sure we don’t prejudge the path technology takes.” Concerned about the unintended consequences of hastily conceived legislation, Faber said that there are “plenty of mechanisms in place to solve and to change bad actions on the part of a carrier.” He and Cerf both mentioned the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Department of Justice as the primary regulators of the Internet.

Cerf, though, was skeptical of the effectiveness of those agencies in managing abusive behavior. Regulation tends to be too reactive and case-specific. In the absence of market competition, he favors legally prohibiting broadband carriers from access discrimination. Otherwise, the ability of consumers to access Internet content may be compromised. “What’s worse than a regulated monopoly?” he asked in reference to broadband carriers. “An unregulated monopoly.”

Both Farber and Cerf agreed that the issues surrounding the Internet need to be better understood in Congress before any decisions are made. Right now, the policy debate is convoluted and reduced to slogans. If legislation is needed to protect the consumer, they said, “it needs to be unambiguous and actionable.”

Monday, July 17, 2006
Program:10:30 A.M. to 12:00 P.M.
Refreshments will be served at 10:00 A.M.
Admission is free

Center for American Progress
1333 H Street NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005
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Nearest Metro: Blue/Orange Line to McPherson Square or Red Line to Metro Center



Event Transcript


Vinton G. Cerf is Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. He is the co-author of the Internet Protocol, a fundamental component of today’s Internet. Since the mid-1970s, Cerf has played a leadership role in numerous organizations that helped shape the Net, including serving as Chair of the Internet Architecture Board, program manager at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), Chair of the Internet Society, and his current position as Chair of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (ICANN). Cerf has received numerous awards for his work including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the A.M. Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, and the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal.

Dave Farber is the Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. He has been making fundamental contributions to the field of computer science since the early 1960s. His contributions to the field are numerous, including the creation of the SNOBOL programming language and serving as academic advisor to some of the most prolific contributors to the Internet including Jon Postel, Paul Mockapetris, and Marshall T. Rose. He was instrumental in creating the NSF/DARPA-funded Gigabit Network Testbed Initiative and currently serves as Chief Scientist of National LambdaRail. Farber served as Chief Technologist to the Federal Communications Commission and is on the board of numerous nonprofit organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He is a Fellow of both the ACM and the IEEE and was awarded the Sigcomm Award for life long contributions to communications and the Scott award for Contributions to Humanity.

Carl Malamud is a Senior Fellow and Chief Technology Officer at the Center for American Progress. Malamud is the author of eight books and was the founder of the Internet Multicasting Service, a nonprofit service known for starting the first radio station on the Internet and putting the SEC EDGAR and US Patent databases online. He has been a visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab and at Keio University, was the founding chairman of the Internet Systems Consortium, and is currently Chair of the Jabber Software Foundation. Some of Malamud’s prior work includes Exploring the Internet, Internet Talk Radio, The Internet 1996 World Exposition, Mappa.Mundi Magazine, North.Pole.Org, Public.Resource.Org as well as RFCs 4096, 4095, 3865, 1530, 1529, and 1528.