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My chat with Google's Vint Cerf

Vint Cerf, Google's "chief internet evangelist" and an early innovator of the Internet, spoke to me by phone from Stockholm Tuesday, days after he sent a letter of support for net neutrality to the Federal Communications Commission .

Cerf, who co-designed the TCP/IP communications protocol used to construct the Internet, addressed criticism that Google is getting a free ride off of carriers and explained why he thinks the high-tech world needs those net neutrality rules.

Google has been a vocal proponent of net neutrality rules, which would benefit Web content companies like theirs as consumers are guaranteed access to their growing number of browsing, maps, voice, and search services.

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation:

Why do you think there should to be open-access rules, and why now?
This matter has been around for several years, and debated hotly. And as for why now, the FCC chairman specifically put this on the table in a significant way in his proposal to begin a notice of proposed rulemaking.

Critics point to your letter the other day and say they agree that the Web was built on open principles. They also say the Internet has flourished with little regulation. So if it isn't broke, why fix it?
First of all, the origin of all this comes from some specific comments from the former chairman of AT&T, Ed Whitacre; remember that?

Yes, he (in 2005) was talking about your company, Google. (Whitacre said Google was getting a free ride off carriers that provide access to the Web).
Not just our company, but all companies that provide Internet services over broadband facilities. If there was a trigger anywhere, that was part of it. Then there were several incidents where it was apparent that broadband carriers were interfering in some sense with the free flow of information for consumers. That raised a certain amount of concern. In the Obama campaign there were specific indications that the president would pursue this attempt to achieve openness and non-discrimination. And I think Mr. Genachowski (FCC Chairman) is trying to make good on that proposition.

With your letter, you've joined a lobbying battle ahead of the FCC's vote on its proposal for new net neutrality rules. How will these letters impact the FCC's actions Thursday?
A notice of proposed rule-making is just that. So I think hard to predict what will come out. The issue is nondiscrimination against applications and against consumer choice. That should be clear by the letter from my colleagues, and by others, that the fundamental concern is that the provider of broadband service not be able to take advantage of that to act in an anticompetitive fashion against others that are trying to provide competitive applications using the same broadband facilities.

With just a few examples of potential wrongdoing, is regulation perhaps too much?
The classic argument, including from former FCCs, is that somehow facilities-based competition will solve the problem – called inter-model competition -- whether on cable, fiber, Wimax, or satellite. The problem in my view is that we don’t see as much competitive facilities-based competition for broadband service as would be needed to discipline this market using competitive forces.

What about criticism that all of this only stands to benefit companies like Google and that you are getting a free ride by not being regulated at all.
I think that's unfounded. Let me start out by pointing out that part of reason the Internet was able to blossom was that for a long period in the history of regulatory management in U.S., there was a requirement that the telecos offer what was called common carriage service. Common carriers are responsible for carrying goods equally for any client upon payment. So telecom was like that too for a long time, until the previous administration decided that there was disparity in the regulatory framework of cable and regulatory framework of telecom and that the Internet somehow wasn’t being treated the same way in those two regulatory regimes. They chose, I think mistakenly, to move that whole Internet service into Title 1, which is an information service.
In the course of doing so, they made no distinction between the transport of bits on the Internet and the applications that sat on top of the network. In my view, as a technical architect, that was a mistake because the underlying layered structure of the Internet really does have a telecommunications component in it.
That is where we went astray in terms of the openness of the Internet. During a regime where common carriage was the rule, the Internet flourished because it was possible to get access to the telecom infrastructure without consideration by telecom people as to what applications it was running.

And criticism of Google?
The idea that Google, Yahoo, and eBay are getting a free ride is absolutely unfair criticism. We have to build out our own infrastructure. And we have to inter-connect to the public internet. We either pay for that by purchasing transit services or we engage in peering arrangements, which cost money. When someone says peering is zero cost, that’s dead wrong. Because in order to peer, you have to build facilities to interconnect with the other parities.
(The broadband carriers) charge for access to the Internet and charge us for transit. The thing that people who are complaining don’t like is that somehow they are unable to extract additional revenue from applications lying on their network. That is the real issue.

What about their high costs for deployment? How can they recover those costs?
That’s a business decision. Let me imagine you are Jerry Yang and David Filo, or Larry Page and Serge Brin, and you are starting your company, and every telco in the world or cable company in the world suddenly says your service won’t be accessible to any of our subscribers unless you pay us. That company can’t get off the ground. I'm an engineer, but if anything, if you are thinking how can I increase the value of my investment in these broadband facilities, one obvious answer is to build application and market them.

What is a technologically appropriate approach to reasonable network management for wireless carriers?
Actually it doesn’t matter if it's a wireless or wired network. I think network management can be introduced that is equally sensible. There's nothing special about wireless networks except that wireless capacity is sometimes less than what you can get, for example, from optical fiber. The magnitude may vary, but the principle should be the same.

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 21, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
 | Tags: at&t, fcc chairman julius genachowski, google vint cerf, net neutrality  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Tech venture capitalists lend support to net neutrality rules
Next: Comcast CEO on net neutrality


When reading this article, it's wise to remember: Vint Cerf has been a shameless corporate promoter -- promoting the interests of whatever large corporation happened to employ him -- for years. Before his stint at Google, he worked for Bernie Ebbers of Worldcom, the perpetrator of the world's largest Ponzi scheme until Bernie Madoff stole the crown just last year.

Cerf makes a number of false statements in the interview above. For example, he claims that ISPs are interfering with the free flow of information on the Net. The truth is that ISPs have never censored legal content. Cerf also claims that there is inadequate facilities-based competition. But there is; not only do we have DSL and cable systems but also multiple providers of cellular broadband and thousands of WISPs.

Cerf also dodges a question regarding the fact that Google wants ISPs to be regulated but does not want to be regulated itself. The fact is that Google has its own private network which is many times the size of the networks of most ISPs. It doesn't want that network to be regulated, but wants ISPs' networks, which in a very real sense are competitors of it, to be subjected to onerous regulation. Google wants to discriminate as to what goes over that network, but doesn't even want ISPs to prioritize time-sensitive traffic on theirs. Clearly, Google is seeking a corporate advantage.

Posted by: squirma | October 22, 2009 12:59 AM | Report abuse

It’s telling that we’re back to 2005 for a rare example of any cause for concern. Consumers enjoy a free and open Internet today in the absence of new regulations. Our nation’s economy also currently enjoys the benefits of the world’s most robust broadband investment--about $60 billion each year from the nation’s nearly 1,400 broadband providers. Greater government intervention in the day-to-day operations of the Internet have been opposed by network engineers who worry that such an approach would harm consumers’ online experience and slow investment and innovation. Given that we enjoy an open, free and innovative Internet today, proponents of regulation face a high bar to demonstrate the public interest in such a profound reversal of a U.S. policy approach that has been so successful for consumers, our economy and our national security.

Tom Amontree
USTelecom-The Broadband Association

Posted by: tamontree | October 22, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse

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