Net neutrality proposal an experiment: Vint Cerf

Internet founder and Google vice-president Vint Cerf tells CBC News the net neutrality proposal suggested by the company and Verizon this week is a useful experiment in finding common ground.

Net neutrality advocate and Google vice-president Vint Cerf says the company's joint proposal with U.S. telecommunications giant Verizon is a worthwhile experiment in finding common ground and not a betrayal, as many critics have suggested.

"You can imagine how polarized the beginnings of those discussions might have been. I viewed the discussions with Verizon as an experiment or an exploration of how two rather polarized views of net neutrality could ultimately end up reaching some sort of compromise that both parties would be equally unhappy with," Cerf said in an interview Friday with CBC News from Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

"In some ways this represents not a stake in the ground, but rather the exploration of common ground and what that common ground might look like. I see it as a kind of homework assignment that Verizon and Google have attempted to complete just to show what happens when you try to come to some kind of common perspective."

Google enflamed the internet on Monday when it announced the proposal with Verizon.

The proposal, unveiled by the two companies on Monday, seeks to establish a framework of rules that would prevent internet providers such as Verizon from unfairly interfering with internet traffic.

'On further thought and discussion, I'm not nearly as unhappy with this outcome as one might imagine me to be.'—Vint Cerf, Google VP

The proposal was heavily criticized by consumer groups, technology bloggers and other internet companies, particularly because one clause would exempt the wireless internet from such net neutrality rules. Another clause would allow service providers to build specialized services such as dedicated gaming channels or more secure banking systems that are distinct from the public internet.

Critics said that would lead to the emergence of a new private internet run by service providers, where net neutrality rules don't apply. Google's proposal, critics said, was a betrayal of its long-held net neutrality principle and proof that the company had turned its back on its "don't be evil" motto.

Google responded to the criticisms in a blog post on Thursday and said the concerns were "myths." The proposal with Verizon contains safeguards to prevent service providers from favouring their special services over the public internet, while the wireless exemption is only temporary, the company said.

The voice everyone had been waiting to hear was Cerf's, who is also Google's "chief internet evangelist."

Cerf is often referred to as the "father of the internet" for his role in writing the protocols the network is based on in the 1970s. He has worked for Google since 2005 and is well known as a staunch advocate of net neutrality.

He has, in the past, been highly critical of telecommunications companies and their desire to change the internet from a platform where innovation is possible without their permission, to one where they decide the rules on what is and isn't possible.

Hopes for more discussion

Cerf said Friday the criticisms of the proposal seem to misunderstand its intention. The talks between Google and Verizon weren't intended to result in any sort of a deal or business arrangement, but they were rather an experiment that will hopefully lead to more discussion. 

That's not to say he agreed with everything put forward in the proposal. Cerf said that when he first read the media reports, his initial reaction was, "Wow, what happened?"

"On further thought and discussion, I'm not nearly as unhappy with this outcome as one might imagine me to be," he said from his office hours before a consumer-group-led protest was scheduled to begin. "I'm not a happy camper with the terms and conditions in some parts, but I'm not surprised at that because it represents an attempt to reach some kind of common ground."

He said his discomfort with some of the terms doesn't stem from philosophical issues regarding net neutrality, but rather because there are still unknowns about how some of the proposals would be implemented on an engineering level, such as the specialized services aspect.

"As an engineer I'm always uncomfortable when I'm not sure what all the side-effects are," he said. "We won't know what the side-effects will be until and unless legislation is adopted. This is still a very open question."

Some advocates speculated this week that there would be a wave of resignations at Google following its apparent reversal on the issue, given that the company employs many net neutrality supporters such as Cerf.

'Stimulate discussion'

Cerf said that was the wrong way to approach the situation, and the Google/Verizon proposal is only the beginning of a long process that will ultimately end in Congress setting the rules. 

"It would be kind of bizarre for me to resign from Google over something that Congress did. I might resign from the country over something that Congress did, but not from Google," he said. "What this document should do is stimulate discussion about the terms as opposed to running around pointing fingers at people saying you're a traitor. I don't consider that to be very constructive."

Cerf also said he is enthusiastic about the different routes taken toward net neutrality by Canada and the United States.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission last year introduced a framework designed to curtail network abuse by internet providers. Unlike the Google/Verizon proposal, however, Canada's rules also cover wireless services.

"It will be very interesting to see if there are any side-effects, positive or negative, in Canada of the choice that's being made. I'm glad that the determination was made to treat wireless and wireline the same way because that's now an opportunity to explore that particular juncture and what impact it has," he said.

"I don't know if ahead is the right word, but you're exploring territory that we have not. That will be beneficial not just to the U.S. but to everyone who's interested in internet and wireless services."