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Are net neutrality boosters ignoring Vint Cerf?

17 Aug

Last week, I chimed in on the whole Google/Verizon net neutrality proposal and tried to suggest that people should step back and think about the whole thing rationally. The problem was, just about everyone with an opinion about the internet was busy huffing and puffing about how “Google had sold out” and how “Google had gone evil.”

Perhaps the most melodramatic responses came from the Free Press, a U.S. consumer group that said the proposal was even worse than feared, that it would lead to a two-tiered internet and that essentially the sky was falling. The tech press was no better, with headlines ranging from harsh to over-the-top. Taking the cake was Wired, which called Google a “carrier-humping, net neutrality surrender monkey.”

I mentioned last week that Google needed to call on Vint Cerf, its vice-president and “chief internet evangelist,” to comment on the Verizon proposal. Cerf, often referred to as the “father of the internet” for his pioneering role in building the network in the 1970s, is a staunch advocate of net neutrality and, therefore, a very well-respected voice on the matter. His support or opposition of the proposal was therefore quite important for a measured judgement of it.

For kicks, I emailed Cerf and asked if he wanted to talk about it. I didn’t expect him to get back to me – I suspect he knows the weight he carries in the net neutrality debate, and if he was going to voice his thoughts, I thought he’d do so in the largest possible forum, perhaps the New York Times, but probably not through a Canadian journalist. Let’s face facts: although we Canadians are very interested in net neutrality, this issue is proving to be an American problem for now.

A few days later, though, Cerf did respond, saying that he did want to talk about the Verizon proposal, which surprised me. Either he considered me a sympathetic ear, or he has simply enjoyed our previous talks. I don’t know.

We chatted on Friday and I posted the interview, along with full audio, on CBC. In a nutshell, Cerf approached the Google/Verizon proposal as I expected him to: with logic and a level head. He doesn’t fully like it, but he thinks it’s a worthwhile attempt at finding common ground on what is proving to be an impossible problem to solve.

Some hard-line net neutrality purists expected a staunch advocate such as Cerf to resign because there was no way the proposal could be supported. No dice on that one, Cerf said, because firstly it’s only a proposal, and secondly it has no actual weight of its own. Congress will ultimately call the shots, and as Cerf said, he could resign from his country over something Congress did, but not necessarily Google for something the company suggested.

Here’s where I get to the complaining. The story was posted on a Friday afternoon in August – granted, probably the worst possible time that you can publish a story and hope to get it read. But still, here we are three days later and almost no one – especially in the U.S. – has linked to it. Seven days ago, ZDNet’s Tom Foremski mused as to why Vint Cerf was “silent on the net neutrality issue?” yet no one so far has thought to follow up on that question? A simple Google search would show that Cerf has indeed broken his silence.

It’s not like CBC tech stories are invisible to Americans. Stories I’ve written have appeared on Slashdot and Techmeme, two popular aggregation sites, so they do show up in RSS feeds and other news alerts (most recently, a story about Canada getting unlocked iPhones featured prominently on Techmeme). I find it difficult to believe, then, that not a single U.S. tech news website picked up the Cerf story, which raises my suspicions. At the risk of sounding paranoid, I think one of two things may be at work here.

Journalists can be petty. In the newspaper world, it’s common for one paper to ignore a story if another paper broke it, and vice versa. In the online world, it’s a little better because everyone is usually desperate to fill the never-ending news hole. It’s possible, though, that the U.S. tech press is ignoring the Cerf interview because they didn’t get it. Worse still, not only did they not get it, but a filthy Canadian did. I’m not casting too many stones here, because I understand this attitude and must confess to practicing it on occasion too (the bit about missing the story, not the part about filthy Canadians).

The other, more disturbing possibility is that the U.S. tech press has seen it (I know for a fact some have), yet they’re pretending it doesn’t exist because Cerf has shown them up to be, as I said last week, unthinking reactionaries. Yup, I’m suggesting some potential bias here, but let’s face it – any publication that would trumpet Google as a “surrender monkey” seems to be pretty keenly advocating one specific line of thought on this issue (to be fair, Wired is far from alone). It’s pretty unseemly to have a well-respected voice on this issue call you out as “not constructive.”

Even here in Canada, where CBC stories have considerably more visibility, the silence has been deafening. Net neutrality absolutists, who devour every bit of information that comes out on the topic, have been pretty quiet in their blogs. SaveOurNet.ca, a site devoted to net neutrality, has a number of recent posts on the U.S. situation, but nothing about what one of the leading advocates in the field thinks. Suspicious indeed.

That leaves me asking: What gives? Has Vint Cerf cowed the unthinking reactionaries and absolutists into silence? Was his level-headed response not the emotional ammunition they were hoping for? Or will his opinions get swept under the carpet so that the heated and more exciting “surrender monkey” debate can continue?

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Posted by on August 17, 2010 in Google, internet, net neutrality, vint cerf

 

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