President Donald Trump’s new Federal Communications Commission chairman, Ajit Pai, has wasted no time in setting an agenda that could wind down the open internet as we know it.
In a presentation at the Google Cloud Next conference today, Google Chief Internet Evangelist and “father of the internet” Vint Cerf didn’t mention Trump or Pai by name — but he clearly addressed what he sees as the dangers of such an agenda, and defended the institution of the open internet.
“The guys who started Google didn’t have to get permission to start the service, they just put it up,” says Cerf. “It’s permissionless innovation.”
Again, Cerf didn’t mention Pai directly. But under Pai’s leadership, the FCC has closed multiple inquiries led by former Chairman Tom Wheeler into the controversial data-cap exemption policies — colloquially known as “zero-rating” — of various internet service providers including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Comcast.
Critics of “zero-rating” say that this is the opposite of the “permissionless innovation” that Cerf is defending here — that if AT&T, for example, exempts its own DirectTV service from customer data caps, it greatly reduces the ability of other companies, especially startups, to compete. Why would a customer use a service that counts against their own data caps, when there’s another that they can watch indefinitely without worrying about it?
Defenders of zero-rating, like T-Mobile CEO John Legere, say that it’s about “customer choice,” and that it opens the door for telecommunications companies to offer new and differentiated services that weren’t previously possible. It’s also important to note that T-Mobile, for example, doesn’t charge startups to submit their content to be zero-rated, though it would require additional time and work on their end.
In Cerf’s view, one of the great benefits of the internet, in the current form that he helped to architect, is that it’s “dumb.” All data mostly has equal weight to all other data, whether it’s being sent via satellite or undersea cable or whatever else, “like a postcard doesn’t care how it’s being carried.”
So if you’re starting a business, like Google, it means that you’re on equal footing to the big guys, Cerf says. When Google was getting off the ground, its data had equal importance as incumbent Yahoo’s, as far as the network was concerned. It meant they could compete on an even playing field, without having to worry that the underlying infrastructure was privileging any competitors over themselves.
“This is a perfect example of why ‘open’ is so important,” Cerf says. “If you’re starting new businesses, you want to be free to invent.”
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