The Geeks Who Built the Internet

Dave Farber, a "geek who built the Internet"

Dave Farber, a geek who built the Internet

One of the perennial tropes of the network neutrality debate has been the tendency of the pro-regulation side to paint it as a David-and-Goliath struggle between big, evil corporations and the little guy. Way back in 2006, James Gattuso pointed out how silly this is: in fact, the push for network neutrality is backed by some of the largest companies in Silicon Valley. My Cato colleague Julian Sanchez points out a particularly lazy example of this kind of argument that happens to target Cato:

Via some outfit called VoIP News, I’m intrigued to learn that my insidious paymasters at Cato number among the 15 greatest enemies of net neutrality. Scary! Turns out Cato is a “hired voice of reason” which, along with CEI “seems to draw its funding from a smattering of every major corporation ever to fund lobbyists.” Damning stuff! And these guys are Totally Serious Journalists, so they did some kind of due diligence and fact checking, rather than just pulling this stuff out of their asses, right?


Well, hey, no, I mean, I’m sure Cato is totally shady about its funding sources—how could they possibly check this stuff?

What’s that? Annual report? Freely available online, you say? Well, and so we get tons of our budget from… Huh? One percent from corporations? None from telecoms in 2008?

Now, obviously serious reporters wouldn’t just utterly fail grade-school level fact checking. Clearly, some devious ISP must have blocked them from reaching this easily accessible information! Further demonstrating the need for Net Neutrality!

Shoddy reporting aside, the article does actually highlight an important point: the people who built the Internet are deeply split, with eminent computer scientists including Bob Kahn (co-inventor of TCP/IP with Vint Cerf) and Dave Farber (another networking pioneer) on the anti-regulation side. And based on conversations I’ve had here at Princeton, Kahn and Farber are far from the only computer scientists who are skeptical that the FCC is up to the job of regulating the Internet.

In her vacuuous appearance on Rachel Maddow last week, Xeni Jardin cited Vint Cerf’s support of regulation and urged viewers to “side with the geeks who actually built the Internet.” She did not, of course, mention that Kahn and Farber, who fit that description as well as Cerf does, are on the other side. “The geeks” are as split on this issue as everyone else.

Update: More from Tim Carney.

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3 Responses to The Geeks Who Built the Internet

  1. They aren’t split on network neutrality, are they? They’re split on formal _regulation_.

    That’s an important distinction, IMO.

  2. Tim Lee says:


    It is an important distinction. Thanks for highlighting it!

  3. Kaleberg says:

    The internet is going to be regulated one way or another. It is regulated now. The real issue is whether it is going to be regulated as the railroads or regulated as the highways.

    The railroads had a stranglehold on transportation in the US from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. If you wanted to build a manufacturing plant, you had to build it in the northeast or midwest. If you built it elsewhere the rail tariffs would put you out of business, just at it would destroy a commodity farmer in the northeast or midwest who was trying to sell to the south or west. The tariffs were set by the carload, but the railways used some form of deep packet inspection to make sure you shipped what you said you were shipping.

    If you look at the redistribution of industry after the rise of the interstate highway system, you can see just how effective the railroads were in controlling national development. Once the highways were able to compete, with tariffs set by weight, distance and time, one sees a whole different pattern of development.

    Needless to say, the folks who own the tubes want to be regulated as railroads, while others want them to be regulated as highways. It’s an interesting battle between those who favor controlled development, in this case private companies, and those who favor free enterprise, in this case other private companies and various internet utopians.

    We’ve seen how the wireless phone companies have stifled innovation for over a decade. Even little things, like visual voicemail, are considered major breakthroughs, not because they are technological tours de force – visual voicemail was prototyped in the 70s – but because someone managed to get a wireless phone company to give permission to implement it.

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