NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
A U.S. Senate committee rejected an attempt to force Internet providers to treat all online content - Web sites, music and movies - the same no matter who's sending it. It's the latest twist in a long-running debate over what's called network neutrality, and it's far from finished.
Those in favor, including Web heavies Yahoo and Microsoft, say that neutrality keeps the playing field level and allows creative new upstarts to emerge on an equal footing. Those opposed, who include cable and telephone companies like Comcast and Verizon, argue that government regulation is not needed and that they should be allowed to establish two tiers of service: super-duper high octane for companies willing to pay for it and regular for everybody else. Both sides claim their position protects the future of the Web.
We've invited two pioneers to weigh in on net neutrality and to tell us about their visions for the future. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and David Farber, known as the grandfather of the Internet, will join us in a few minutes.
If you have questions about what network neutrality is and what it means for anybody who logs on, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Later in the hour, a collapse today in the Doha world trade talks. We'll find out what happened and why all sides are pointing fingers at everybody else.
But first, net neutrality. NPR's Laura Sydell has been following this debate, and she joins us now from the NPR studio in San Francisco. Hi, Laura.
LAURA SYDELL reporting:
CONAN: This sounds like a debate over some abstruse technical issues. Why do we care about net neutrality?
SYDELL: It really does, and it's actually kind of funny. There have been a lot of things circulating on the Web, including songs, anything to try and make it interesting, so - but it actually is very significant to the average person.
What it means is thus far we've been using the Web in a certain kind of way. If you put up your blog, it pretty much gets treated like anything else that gets put up there. Everything gets treated the same. What the phone and the cable companies are saying is that the pipes are getting really clogged, and they'll get more clogged as we have more video going over the Web. So what they want to do is establish another tier where you can have a kind of guaranteed fast-speed service that will get there and it'll get there quickly.
SYDELL: And the only way to do it is if they can charge the actual people, like, say, Google or whoever, whatever company, or Amazon, to get on that high-speed pipe. And so there'd be two tiers, basically...
SYDELL: ...of what you get.
CONAN: So, the way I'm understanding it, net neutrality is what we have now.
SYDELL: That's right. And this would be actually a bit of a shift in the way the Web has functioned. It would have another tier of service. The people who are critical of that say that basically what the phone companies and the cable companies want to do is turn it into another version of cable television where they have control over really who gets on. So, for example, I just discovered recently - I got phone using my cable company...
SYDELL: ...and when they came in, because they say there's no problem or they haven't done anything yet, but actually this is an example of them using exactly what they're talking about. I said, oh, I heard that the - that your service is very good, your cable phone service. He said, oh, yes. It's better than the other voice over IP because we prioritize our own packets. Packets are the things that travel across the Internet, right?
SYDELL: So, basically, they are giving preference to their own service over other people's service, giving them a competitive advantage.
CONAN: I see, and so that's what they would do for anybody willing to pay for it, whether it's Google or Peapod or whoever.
SYDELL: Exactly, exactly. And a lot of people say - the critics of doing it that way, simply say, you know, this would change the whole nature of it. It wouldn't be this open, free, competitive environment that's, you know, brought us so many new businesses, where anybody can get on and have an equal shot at your eyeballs.
CONAN: Yeah. So they say, you know, one side says we've got to protect the free market. I mean, hey, if we want to charge more for more services and greater bandwidth, so what? And the other guys say, wait a minute, we want net democracy.
SYDELL: Right, it is - it's kind of funny because there - on the one hand, they're saying, you know, don't touch it. You know, government out. The truth is the government has really been involved in many ways all the way along. I mean, the Internet was actually something that was initially developed by the government, and many of these companies do get subsidies to build their pipes through.
So it's not like, you know, one way or another the government isn't involved. It is involved. But I think what they're saying is that at this stage, don't make any more regulation, just, you know, let the market work it out and that that's the way we're going to get - I just want to quickly add here that one of their arguments is this is the only way we're going to be able to finance getting really high speed to lots and lots of people is if we can charge extra.
CONAN: And you mentioned finance. Money, how much money is involved in this?
SYDELL: A lot of money, and, I mean, I should say that, you know, in this case you do have behemoths on both sides. You have Google, you have Yahoo on, you know, who are - who want network neutrality. You have then the phone companies and the cable companies on the other side, so there are big people on both sides.
I think that, though, traditionally, the phone companies and the cable companies have more experience at lobbying Washington, and they have put a lot of time, a lot of energy into lobbying people about this. And the tech companies are only beginning to get in on that game. They're a little bit newer to it.
There also seems to be, from what I can tell, more grassroots people on the side of - in favor of network neutrality. So you are seeing more sort of groups, you know, little groups, smaller companies who are on that side. And there doesn't - hasn't been, up until this point - I think if you look, the facts will bear this out - as much money having come from the tech side of things, the forces that support network neutrality.
CONAN: Now, let me ask you about politics. The House passed its version of the Telecommunications Bill earlier this year, rejecting most of the attempts to enforce net neutrality. And a Senate committee voted down the latest neutrality provision. This Congress is running out of time. People are getting interested in getting out there and campaigning for reelection.
SYDELL: They are. I have been told that this is probably going to get dealt with in September, so we're not going to see it now over the summer. But they're going to come back, the Senate's is going to come back. The Telecommunications Bill is going to come to the floor. I should note that it only lost in committee. It was a tie.
SYDELL: And in a tie, it gets defeated, so it was very close. There's now a lot more lobbying on the part of the people in the network neutrality side. They've really kind of geared into action, including the Christian Coalition is actually on the network neutrality side, so this is a debate that isn't totally, you know, left versus right. There are some exceptions here.
So those groups - the Christian Coalition says it's going to lobby harder, their, you know, their Republicans in the Senate. It has tended to go along party lines but not totally. You have Senator Snowe and Senator Dorgan are the ones who sponsored the Network Neutrality Bill, so Snowe being a Republican, Dorgan, a Democrat. So now there is a push if they can get a few more Republicans to move over to the network neutrality side. And that debate is likely to happen this fall. That's what I'm told.
CONAN: And then you'd have to have those two bills be reconciled, and they're pretty different, not just on this.
SYDELL: Indeed. And I have to say I am never - I'm always amazed at how these things get reconciled. It will, and if some form of network neutrality passes in the Senate, something probably not as strong as what passed will end up in some kind of compromise bill, and I don't know what that would look like. There are different shades of possibilities in this as to how they would actually regulate it.
CONAN: Laura Sydell, thanks very much.
SYDELL: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: NPR's Laura Sydell has been following the debate over net neutrality. She was with us from our studios in San Francisco.
Tim Berners-Lee is credited with inventing the World Wide Web. He's senior researcher at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and director of the World Wide Web Consortium. He's a supporter of net neutrality legislation. He's with us now from studios on the campus at MIT. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Sir TIM BERNERS-LEE (Senior Researcher, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory): Thanks for inviting me.
CONAN: Why is net neutrality important?
Sir BERNERS-LEE: Net neutrality is really so essential to the way the Internet works at all. It's not that it's new. Net neutrality is the way the Internet has been working since it started. There's always been the assumption that if you plug one thing into the Internet at one end and one thing into the other -Internet at the other end, they can communicate; that if I buy Internet connectivity from my house and then somebody, some company somewhere buys Internet connectivity for their server, that I can connect to them. That's always been the assumption of how it worked.
Sir BERNERS-LEE: What's changed now is this threat. The threat isn't really - I think the two tiers model, I think, perhaps masks the actual concern. There's no problem with having multiple tiers, in other words, paying more money for better service. We've always paid more money for better service, ever since we had a choice of dialing into a 1200 baud modem or a 56K modem...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sir BERNERS-LEE: ...way back in those days. Well, you know, everything may be a thousand times faster, but it's still we pay more for a better connection, and nobody's debating that at all. Nobody's debating that the market shouldn't set a good - the appropriate price for getting a connection at a megabit per second if I want it from my home.
It's the question - so the problem's not about having multiple tiers. There have always been multiple tiers. It's the idea that this new tier would not really be the Internet as we know it. It would be much more like cable television, as he said, and I think Laura described it very well, that the plan would be...
CONAN: But just let me say that the tiers that have always existed, as you say, those have been on the consumer end. If I want to pay more for higher speed, I can get a higher speed modem or get cable access or something like that. This would be from the provider end and the company end.
Sir BERNERS-LEE: Well, everybody at both ends always has to pay for their connectivity. People have said that Google are trying to get their connectivity for free. Nonsense. I don't know how much they pay, but I'm sure they pay a lot. If you're a large company and you have a lot of servers - and Google have a huge number of servers, serving a lot of people, so I'm sure they pay a lot to be connected to the Internet.
So that's not going to change. Everybody's going to have to pay more. And if we have new technology which makes the Net especially suitable for video, which will enable - TV over the Internet, so going to all sorts of Web sites and getting TV streams. I think that'll be very exciting. And I'd be prepared to pay quite a lot more for that sort of Internet connection.
CONAN: So, in a way, this is about what you say. This is about controlling access to information.
Sir BERNERS-LEE: Yes. The question is when I pay for the cable, am I paying to be connected to the world or am I, like with the current cable company system, paying for a particular set of information? It's a little - the way the cable companies seem to want to run it takes you back to - remember before the Internet when Prodigy and America Online and was it Delphi that had various dial-in services.
Sir BERNERS-LEE: You could dial in and they would have various things, like the weather and chat rooms and things available, and who you dialed into completely determined the services they had available. So they competed on content as well as on the connection, and the content was the main thing, so really they were content providers.
Then in the Internet architecture, you pay to be connected just as you pay to connect the power on your TV up to 110 volts. That's just a connection, and that doesn't tell you anything about where you connect. And that's what makes the Internet so wonderfully diverse, the fact that so many things can spring up.
CONAN: We're talking about the debate over net neutrality and the future of Web. We'll talk more with Tim Berners-Lee after a short break. And we'll be joined by another Internet pioneer with, as you might suspect, a different opinion. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail, email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
The debate over what's called net neutrality pits the new guard of Internet sites against the old guard of telecom companies. Each side is spending millions to convince the public and Congress that their vision of the Internet is the best. It's a complicated issue. If you're having troubling following the specifics of the debate, NPR's Telecommunications Correspondent, Larry Abramson, will offer a guide to what's at stake on our Web site at npr.org.
Our guest is Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. He's director of the World Wide Web Consortium and author of the book, Weaving the Web. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's bring in another guest now.
David Farber has been called the grandfather of the Internet. He's a distinguished career professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and served at the Federal Communications Commission as chief technologist. He's also a trustee of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He opposes net neutrality legislation and joins us now from the studios of member station WQED in Pittsburgh. And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Professor DAVID FARBER (Professor of Computer Science and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University; Trustee, Electronic Frontier Foundation): Thank you. It's nice to be here.
CONAN: You say we don't know need any more regulation or new laws. There are -it's all covered on the books.
Prof. FARBER: Well, essentially, what I'm saying is that the current proposed legislation brings organizations like the FCC too close to the regulation of the Internet. We've avoided that over the years, and the Internet has thrived on that. The hazy legislation that's being proposed really requires fairly precise and deep understanding of the Internet in order to regulate it, and that's not something the FCC has been notably successful in doing.
There's a whole bunch of laws on the books, and in a sense, most of the argument about net neutrality is whether the broadband carriers can exert abnormal market power. That sounds familiar...
Prof. FARBER: ...in other areas. And there's a lot of law - there's Federal Trade Commission, there are private antitrust suits, et cetera. Probably the most interesting thing is, though, that we haven't had a real example yet of the thing that everybody's worrying about. The only example was a voice over IP supplier who the FCC squatted down fairly fast. So we're passing laws in the absence of any problem, and that's a dangerous way to go.
CONAN: And getting the government involved in regulating something like this is also a slippery slope you fear?
Prof. FARBER: I fear it's a very slippery slope. If you look what's happened in the cable area now, it's almost impossible to talk English over the cable networks and the broadcast networks without being afraid of censorship. Once you let the government into things, the political process makes it very difficult to stop.
CONAN: Yet, as you say - as we were hearing, couldn't Internet providers either block competing services or give some set of competing services an advantage over another - over others?
Prof. FARBER: Well, first of all, nobody, to my knowledge, has threatened to block anything.
Prof. FARBER: You know, to block any major, like a Google, is commercial suicide. The access to the Internet is not a single supplier in large parts of the country. One could almost look at it as reverse. It's quite possible that the application suppliers may want - may not be willing to provide material free but may want to get charged for carrying their material.
Prof. FARBER: It's a very complicated space. The debate has been remarkably uninformed, almost on all sides.
CONAN: Well, you two gentlemen know a great deal more than most of us do. I'm going to let each of you respond to each other's arguments, and then we'll get listeners involved, informed or not. Let's hear first, Tim Berners-Lee, what do you say to David Farber's argument. Why do we want the government involved in regulating this?
Sir BERNERS-LEE: Well, I completely agree, David, that the Internet generally thrives on as little regulation as possible, and I'll trust you when you say -if you've been there that - if you say that the FCC really doesn't know so much about the Internet.
But, on the other hand, what we're looking at here is a very fundamental principle. It's, in a way - any market, any space like the Internet has a few basic fundamental principles on which it works. For example, the market economy thrives on lack of regulation, but you do have a principle that nobody duplicates $10 bills because that just completely destroys the system.
So the idea that if I connected to the Internet and then you've connected to the Internet, then we can communicate, is a very, very basic idea. So just defining that as a requirement is simple. Yes, I agree that if you try to make laws which get into how the Internet service providers (unintelligible) with each other and the arrangements they have, then it gets difficult. And writing good laws is difficult, and it's not my subject anyway.
But the principle of this is extremely important. And we - and you say it hasn't yet gone wrong. Well, we've had, for the first time, a serious threat that the cable companies have more or less announced that they would very much like to be able to stop Google delivering videos to particular sets of customers on a particular cable system in a particular town unless Google paid up a particular amount of money, even though Google had connected to the Internet and those customers had connected to the Internet.
So, as I see it, that is crossing the very clear, thin line from network neutrality. And once you've crossed that line, then you have cable companies are determining which Internet sites I can go to. All right, that has happened, and once it's started, then really I don't see why they should stop. They're used to being able to completely control which movies I watch. Why shouldn't they just put into place the same arrangements that they have now over something that they call, in quotes, the Internet, the high-speed Internet, when in fact what we're getting is just more cable TV?
I think the high-speed Internet would not then be the Internet as we know it at all, and it would completely throttle back the innovation that we see and the tremendous creativity that you see out there on the Internet, people creating new types of Web site every moment.
CONAN: David Farber.
Prof. FARBER: Just a couple of comments on that. First, if there's a really a bad behavior, the Congress has shown in the past that it's quite capable of acting fairly fast. And, in fact, given the regulatory authority the FCC has over both the cable and the telephone operators, it's perfectly - and the Internet, by the way - it's perfectly capable of reacting very, very fast to a real threat.
By the way, the - in the early part of this, there was talk about the telephone on the cable. It turns out that the telephone services on the cable don't go over the Internet portion of the cable. I won't go into that any more, but it's a fairly complicated thing, and it's hard to call that a violation.
CONAN: And my head is hurting anyway. Go ahead.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. FARBER: Yeah. Well, let me just make one other comment. The Net has never been the world's most neutral place. The (unintelligible) relationships between backbone carriers - I don't want to get too technical - has never been an open book as to who connects to who.
The - there are companies, one called Alkemi(ph), which provides to anybody who's willing to pay for it expedited service over this big, enormous, and sometimes clogged core of the Internet. A small company finds it very hard to be able to afford that. A big company does not. So, you know, is it neutral? I doubt if it's ever been really neutral for good - for some good reasons.
CONAN: All right, let's - I know we could discuss all of these points in great depth, but let's get some listeners involved in the conversation, and we'll begin with Robert. Robert's calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.
ROBERT (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me.
ROBERT: I actually used to work for a couple of telecom companies. And during the dot - right before and during the dot-com crash, when a lot of these startups and spin-off companies from the telecom giants existed, I was able to see the impact that the Internet actually has on our current infrastructure.
And network operation centers across the country are actually burgeoning at the seams with problems of not being able to supply enough bandwidth not only to the general consumer but to businesses.
And one of the things that created the dot-com crash was these companies quickly realized that what they were charging for business-to-business services didn't even cover the cost of current infrastructure, much less building new circuits to allow for growth.
And what a lot of people don't realize is that all of the Internet uses current pipe, if you will, whether it's telephone or fiber or whatever, that has been in the ground for years. You know, many companies have laid new cable and we're trying to build new circuits all the time, but the thing is, is that there's only so much bandwidth available, period. And all of the major companies who supply our telephone and cable services are scrambling to try and build more because of course consumers and businesses are asking for more.
So, I think, if we're not allowed - if the companies are not allowed to create the second tier where they can specifically go to businesses and say, look, we're going to build you a network specific to your needs and make sure that we can support that, I think we're going to see more failures in the telecom industry and more surprises for consumers where they go, wait a minute, why am I paying ten more dollars a month for this now?
CONAN: Mm-hmm. David Farber?
Prof. FARBER: Yeah. The point's a reasonable point. I think it's more complicated than that. You know, we're facing a future where there's a lot of opportunities to further revolutionize the way we operate, the way we live, and that's going to requires that this country get a hell of a lot more bandwidth into the hands of the citizens - I hate the term consumer - and into the hands of application suppliers.
We've been very slow in doing that. And one of the reasons that I don't like regulation and things too early in the game is I want to give as much potential for innovation on both sides of the arena, both the suppliers and the application companies, and I fear that, again, when you have ponderous regulation, regulation becomes a competitive edge and only companies who know how to pay good lawyers succeed.
CONAN: Tim Berners-Lee?
Sir BERNERS-LEE: I think that's where our visions of the excitement of the future differ. For me, I think the excitement is that we are going to have - yes, we need more bandwidth, and we will have a huge new market for things that can happen on that market. Very, very diverse market, lot's of new things happening.
Well, there will be a lot of competition to provide that bandwidth, all the various phases for all the different types of company involved in running the Internet. And that must be separate from the competition for content, for movies, for talk shows, and so on.
Now, I think that these two markets are very different. Different people are good at them. They will change at different speeds. They will have - the Internet may have a technological breakthrough at a certain point and suddenly the bandwidth available might go up. At a certain point content providers in a completely different area may find a way of using that. Or a new Internet application may spring up which uses the new existing power. New things will appear, like blogs, like wikis, like the new things on the Net.
So in a world in which we have these two worlds separate - as we've had up till now - we've separately paid for our Internet connectivity and then separately subscribed to content on the Net - what we've seen has been this incredible growth in both of them, because each was a fiercely competitive market for precisely that thing, a fiercely competitive market, an effective, efficient market for connectivity, and a very good market for Internet content, which has gone beyond our wildest dreams.
Prof. FARBER: I won't argue.
CONAN: All right. Robert, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
CONAN: And we're talking with Tim Berners-Lee and David Farber, net pioneers. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's get Mike on the line. Mike's calling from San Francisco.
MIKE (Caller): Yes. Hi, Neal.
MIKE: I have a question and a comment. I guess the comment has to do with an analogy I would make to XM and Sirius Radio.
CONAN: These are satellite radio providers, yeah.
MIKE: Yeah, some people may obviously realize that you can get Major League Baseball on one and National Football League on the other.
CONAN: TALK OF THE NATION on the other. That's all right. Go ahead.
MIKE: TALK OF THE NATION on the other. Pick your dichotomy, you know, whatever you want. You know, Plan A on one system, Plan B on the other. But if you get into this new system, you're obviously going to have content restriction where you have to either subscribe to two companies to get both, or am I wrong about that? And the second question has to do with tiers?
CONAN: Why don't we deal with the first question first. Tim Berners-Lee, would you have to get two, you know, two satellite boxes like you would with XM or Sirius? Is this going to be another box?
Sir BERNERS-LEE: Well, with cable you can imagine that - I know I have two cables coming into my house because I switched cable companies. That's exactly the point, Mike. You've got it. Your analogy is right. You wouldn't have to buy necessarily two completely different types of radio receiver, but you'd find that if one Internet company - cable - allowed you to access one set of television shows and then the other one allowed you to access the other one, you'd have to keep switching your cable company depending - as you browse the Web. And that's not very practical.
CONAN: Is that a concern, David Farber?
Prof. FARBER: I think it's a concern. I'm not sure, however, that the result of those two satellite systems being highly competitive and yet not completely overlapped isn't going to be that one of them buys the other one out and we end up with one. The trouble with ending up with one is that you have one person's belief in what you want to watch, one of the problems with cable.
I like - I've never said that we shouldn't have a huge amount of diversity on the Net. I never said that businesses that misbehaved shouldn't be punished. What I'm saying is that there are mechanisms to do that in current law, and creating yet another tier of them worries me, a lot.
CONAN: Mike, you had another question.
MIKE: Yes, this had to do with the multiple tier, and just somebody could answer whether the fact that I might send something and it would be in the nature of content - like either a video or audio presentation that maybe I got from TV or from somewhere, I was sending that to a friend who had a higher tier of service, would that work equally in both directions even if it was just person to person?
CONAN: Tim Berners-Lee?
Sir BERNERS-LEE: Well, if you're sending a video and you wanted to go, for example, in real time you want to send a stream of video feed of your Sunday afternoon to family across the country, then you'd obviously have to get an Internet connection which is capable of carrying that video, and so would the person receiving it. So I think it's reasonable that if you both do that then you should be able to send a video stream.
I think it would be a shame if you got a message back, it bounced back from their cable company saying, oh, if you want to be a television supplier to people in the Bay area, then call our marketing department and see whether you can become one of our platinum partners.
CONAN: All right.
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call. One of the things I don't understand is under the present system - and this may be my lack of technical knowledge - but under the present system, something like YouTube, which a year ago didn't exist or existed only in embryonic form and requires a gazillion, you know, a lot of bandwidth, can suddenly pop up almost out of nowhere and the next day everybody in the country's logging onto it and all the bandwidth seems to be there. David Farber?
Prof. FARBER: Yeah. The bandwidth's there for that type of interaction. On the other hand, the last mile is a big problem. It's not so easy to supply that bandwidth over the last mile, and that's one of the problems that we have as a country. The other thing is that my experience at least with a lot of real time delivery of video, as well as Internet telephony, is sometimes less than spectacular. You know, sometimes it's jerky and not very nice.
CONAN: And calls do drop out sometimes. The last mile, of course, between your computer and the Internet provider. Anyway, we're going to have more on this after a short break. Again, 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about the net neutrality issue. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Tomorrow at this time on TALK OF THE NATION, the stories of science fiction author Philip K. Dick and the movies that they have inspired. Today, though, we're talking about the future of the Internet with two people who have been there from the beginning. Tim Berners-Lee is a senior researcher at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. David Farber is the distinguished career professor of Computer Science and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.
Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And we'll turn to David. David's calling us from Jackson Hole in Wyoming.
DAVID (Caller): Hi.
DAVID: I have a - I guess I don't have a question so much as a comment. I am a small time Web publisher and that is such an amazing place of opportunity right now because I have a global audience. And I can compete with CNN.com. If you type in jhvlog.com or CNN.com, you have equal opportunity to get to either places. And if that changes, then basically this amazing revolution that we're seeing right now on the Internet kind of goes out the door.
CONAN: David Farber, would net neutrality regulation - if there were no regulation, David worries he might go out of business.
Prof. FARBER: I don't really believe that in fact that's likely to happen. I don't think anybody I've talked to has even proposed that. The - as I said before, the Congress, the FCC and the FTC have all the authority and speed to stop that cold if it happens. I think we're talking about - that's part of the problem of this whole discussion of network neutrality. Nobody can come up with a reasonably concise definition of what the problem is.
If I can mention a slight competitor - it wasn't slight, but - Vin Cerf and I had a debate in Washington called the Great Debate. And I think C-Span is broadcasting it today. And we were actually more in agreement than disagreement, but afterwards we realized that we really didn't have a good definition of what net neutrality was. And that, again, passing laws on something that you can't quite get your hands on is a description for a very dangerous future.
CONAN: Tim Berners-Lee, sometimes also in the process of passing legislation people advocating for one side or the other try to, you know, bring up all kinds of intimidating and scary possibilities. If this is passed or if this isn't passed the world's going to come to an end.
Sir BERNERS-LEE: Well, there's been a lot of - I think there's been a lot of bringing up of not just scary possibilities, but also there's been a certain amount of - intentional or unintentional - I think dilution and side-tracking of the main issues in the blogs out there. I think that, David, you've put your - David from Jackson Hole - you've put your finger on what the issue would be.
The issue would be simply that the cable company would say, well, it's going to cost us so much to put this cable in - this extra, fancy new cable in the ground and design the new video capable system, that we're not going to get enough money back just by charging our customers and just by charging you for your Internet access. We're going to have to also charge you for a special plan by which your particular video blog can be distributed.
Now, it may be that this is only going to happen at TV layers and the rest of the Internet, the blogs and everything, which is text-based and static images-based, which needs much slower connection speed, will go on as before and will have an Internet like that.
But if you imagine that there was a fast Internet and some Web sites that, if you like, when they connect to CNN then they get high-definition television and when they connect to yours they get the low, sort of, low-definition television, which you get from YouTube right now...
Sir BERNERS-LEE: ...but really you won't be able to compete. And you may have just as good a story, with all due respect to CNN. You may have a very special story and you may discover something really important. You may have a very particular spin, you know, artistic, creative idea.
And I like to be able to see it. So that's very important to me that I can get to your video blog when we're all running at very, very much higher bandwidth and your video blog is in high definition.
DAVID: Right. And that seems to be the issue to me is that once you start giving these companies lots with lots of money preferential treatment then this revolution where there are always people creating amazing content and competing on the same level with the mainstream media companies, that revolution is over.
CONAN: All right. David...
Prof. FARBER: Well, you're not - go ahead. I'm sorry.
CONAN: David Farber?
Prof. FARBER: I was just saying you're not competing on the same level right now. I assume you don't subscribe to Alkemi's caching service. There's a lot of things that differentiate.
I think it would be a bad mistake on the part of the cable operators or the telephone companies to put that type of restriction on the Internet. I think that would cause a reaction that, for a fact, would have me going to the Congress screaming, for God's sake, stop them.
So, if you assume they're smart businessmen, at least they're not going to fall off a cliff.
CONAN: Tim Berners-Lee, you were going to jump in?
Sir BERNERS-LEE: Well, I was going to jump in to agree. I think, David Farber, you and I do agree what you said that that would be misbehavior, basically. You call it misbehavior.
I think - I worry that as far as the law is on the books, it's not actually cast as misbehavior. And the companies have announced their intention to go in that way.
So I'm frightened. I would like the - I'd like you to go screaming to Congress now rather than wait until it happens, because I feel that they've thrown down the gauntlet. They said, we intend to do this. You know, they said to their shareholders, this is the way we're going to go. This is the way we're going to make more money.
So, I feel that the threat is there and real and Congress should act now to stop it.
CONAN: David in Jackson Hole, I'm going to say thank you very much for the phone call.
DAVID: Absolutely. A pleasure to speak with the man who started this all.
CONAN: All right. And I want to thank our guests. This seems like a good spot to end it. David Farber, appreciate your time today.
Prof. FARBER: Pleasure.
CONAN: David Farber, distinguished career professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, who also served at the Federal Communications Commission as chief technologist. He was with us today from the studios of member station WQED in Pittsburgh.
And, Tim Berners-Lee, thank you very much for being with us.
Sir BERNERS-LEE: Thank you for this opportunity.
CONAN: Tim Berners-Lee, senior researcher at MIT's computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory, director of the World Wide Web Consortium. Also the author of, Weaving the Web. He joined us from the studios on the campus at MIT.
And when we come back, it's going to be something equally abstruse and even more important, the Doha round.