By Patrick Barnard
TMCnet Assignment Editor
Do you want to learn a little more about net neutrality and what it really means?
Then you should probably avoid the guys in Congress who are drafting legislation that could fundamentally change the way the Internet works.
That is, unless you want to get really confused.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and author of the Communications, Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006, apparently thinks of the Internet as a “series of tubes.” Last week, while explaining why he voted against an amendment which would have strengthened the proposed bill’s net neutrality provisions, he offered an extremely over-simplified rationale as to why an email sent by a staff member on a Friday hadn’t arrived at his office until the following Tuesday:
“Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially,” he said.
By that, Sen. Stevens apparently meant the increasing video signals now traversing the Internet’s many networks. He claimed that the downloading of video content (i.e. the “commercial” use of the Internet) is already starting to become so popular that it is slowing down the delivery of everyone’s email messages. This, he seemed to imply, is exactly why the big network operators - AT&T (News - Alert), BellSouth (News - Alert) and Verizon (News - Alert) - should be allowed to build new, faster tiers of service and then be able to charge for use of those tiers.
Unfortunately for Sen. Stevens, his explanation was so poorly worded that for many people it indicated at least partial ignorance of how the Internet works – and what net neutrality really means. As a result, bloggers - mainly those in support of net neutrality legislation - have come down hard on Sen. Stevens, saying his comments are yet another example of how our elected officials in Congress “just don’t get it.”
Rather than offering any further interpretations of what Sen. Stevens meant, here is a partial transcript of his statement (courtesy of Ryan Singel and Kevin Poulsen’s blog on Wired, which includes an audio transcript) so you can decide for yourself:
“There's one company now you can sign up and you can get a movie delivered to your house daily by delivery service. Okay. And currently it comes to your house, it gets put in the mail box when you get home and you change your order but you pay for that, right.
But this service isn't going to go through the interent and what you do is you just go to a place on the internet and you order your movie and guess what you can order ten of them delivered to you and the delivery charge is free.
Ten of them streaming across that internet and what happens to your own personal internet?
I just the other day got, an internet [i.e. email] was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why?
Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the internet commercially.
So you want to talk about the consumer? Let's talk about you and me. We use this internet to communicate and we aren't using it for commercial purposes.
We aren't earning anything by going on that internet. Now I'm not saying you have to or you want to discriminate against those people [...]
The regulatory approach is wrong. Your approach is regulatory in the sense that it says "No one can charge anyone for massively invading this world of the internet". No, I'm not finished. I want people to understand my position, I'm not going to take a lot of time. [?]
They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck.
It's a series of tubes.
And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.
Now we have a separate Department of Defense internet now, did you know that?
Do you know why?
Because they have to have theirs delivered immediately. They can't afford getting delayed by other people.
Now I think these people are arguing whether they should be able to dump all that stuff on the internet ought to consider if they should develop a system themselves.
Maybe there is a place for a commercial net but it's not using what consumers use every day.
It's not using the messaging service that is essential to small businesses, to our operation of families.
The whole concept is that we should not go into this until someone shows that there is something that has been done that really is a violation of net neutrality that hits you and me.”
Now ask yourself, is this a guy who you would trust to rewrite our country’s telecommunications laws?
Needless to say, Sen. Stevens’ comments have provided even more fodder for net neutrality proponents, who are pushing for legislation that will prevent the big telcos from establishing paid tiers.
One blogger considered Sen. Stevens’ comments to be so hilarious that he even decided to create his own “series of tubes” T-shirt design.
But not every blogger has come down on Sen. Stevens like a sledgehammer on a watermelon:
“People misspeak in public sometimes; in fairness, you have to forgive them that,” said blogger John Rennie on Scientific American.com. “And many people would choke if asked to describe the workings of the Internet extemporaneously. And Ted Stevens is, I think, 82 years old. He’s no doubt parroting descriptions he’s heard others give at various times. I’m willing to cut the man some slack here.”
But, as Rennie pointed out, Sen. Stevens is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and, as such, he “now has a singularly important role in setting rules for the Internet.”
“It’s not asking too much that he should at least sound like he knows what he’s talking about if he’s going to be a point man for the interests rooting against net neutrality. Moreover, as chairman of the Commerce Committee, he should at least avoid making statements to the effect that we could have a ‘commercial net’ that consumers wouldn’t use.”
All of this raises another interesting question: How much of the Communications, Consumer’s Choice and Broadband Deployment Act did Sen. Stevens actually author himself?
Patrick Barnard is Associate Editor for TMCnet and a columnist covering the telecom industry. To see more of his articles, please visit Patrick Barnard’s columnist page.