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Computer Science Professor David Farber Explains His Opposition to Net Neutrality

David Farber, a professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, opposes net neutrality rules proposed by the Federal Communications Commission. Here's why:

Farber doesn't think there are enough examples of bad players in the telecom, cable and wireless industries to justify more regulation. And even if there were problems, consumers and companies can complain to the Federal Trade Commission or Justice Department, he says. Ultimately, net neutrality rules would be bad for innovation, says Farber, who was one of the early technologists involved in the formation of the Internet.

Farber runs a popular e-mail list on telecom and tech issues. He recently wrote a paper funded by AT&T on FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's net neutrality proposal. But he said he was able to say whatever he wanted and that he's had the same opinions since his op-ed article for The Washington Post in 2007.

I interviewed Farber Wednesday to talk about his opposition to Genachowski's proposal and why he thinks any new rules would create a legal mess. Here's a transcript of our conversation:

What's your concern with net neutrality?

My general concern has to do with hazy definitions that people are using. Net neutrality is everything from sliced bread to pickles. And like "appropriate network management," that's a very hazy term and it's hard to define it more tightly. So you either end up in court cases or endless hearings at the FCC arguing over these definitions.

Isn't the point of the rulemaking process at the FCC to drill down on those details and give clearer guidelines?

But it's very hard to define these things. The problem here is everyone talks about reasonable network management, but if you look at it from a technical perspective, someone trying to build new ways of operating networks is going to sit there saying, "I wonder if this new brilliant idea is reasonable or not. And if I go through all the energy of implementing it and testing it, will someone in Washington say that that violates some reasonable network management criteria?"

Isn't the goal of Genachowski's proposal to put out a high-level guide for how Internet service providers can run their networks and then to handle violations or issues that arise on a case-by-case basis?

It is also attacking a problem which doesn't seem to exist. The one or two cases where things that I would say fall into network neutrality have been taken care of easily. The FCC looked at this and said "You aren't doing things right, so let's look at it." Having a whole set of regulations for something you don't understand hasn't happened is sort of tricky.

What do you think is a more reasonable approach by the FCC?

The FCC saying what is a reasonable way to operate is usually enough to get people to do it. Formal rules may be overkill. And it may cause real jurisdictioanal issues. Does the FCC have the right to regulate? If nothing else, as has happened with Comcast, these cases will end up in the courts for a long time.

Your argument about innovation is interesting, because Genachowski's arguments for rules are also for the sake of innovation and growth of the sector. Do you see the parallels in the arguments?

In 2007, we commented that there are other vehicles to that such as antitrust at the DOJ or at the FTC. If a small guy has a brilliant idea and can't get something done on a wireless system, then why can't it be done? If it's a business issue, I have less sympathy. If technical, I find it difficult to find any set of rules that would have any effect there.

Should the FCC say that all applications that want to operate should be allowed? Practically unless we make magic with physics, that can't happen.

Can you give an example of how why that can't happen?

We've always said the Internet has infinite bandwidth, but the economics of running a network don't allow you to do that. You share a cable of fairly small bandwidth with a lot of people.

By Mike Shepard  |  October 8, 2009; 9:00 AM ET
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