Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Asleep at the Switch

Perhaps I spoke too soon when I claimed that legislators were keenly aware of how distributed networks operate (and thus likely to react defensively) in my analysis of recent House Intelligence Committee hearings about the use of the Internet by terrorists. Or at least it seems that lawmakers with six-year terms may be more in need of a cognitive upgrade than those with two-year terms.

In particular, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who has come out against Net Neutrality initiatives, made some astonishing comments last week about how the Internet functioned as "a series of tubes."

They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck.

It's a series of tubes.

And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.

Significantly, Stevens credits development of the infrastructure of the Internet to private corporations not to government planners, so he clearly doesn't see it as a public good. You can read the senator's astonishingly naïve and yet convoluted comments or listen to a jaw-dropping sound file (on which you can periodically hear a startled woman breaking decorum and saying "Oh my god" in the background). Stevens even talks about how his staff "sent an internet" instead of "an e-mail." He also characterizes those who might want to watch streaming video on the Internet as not like "you and me," since they are "providers" not "consumers." Of course these remarks have been widely ridiculed in the blogosphere. For example, see the above recent t-shirt design.

The Senator's personal website doesn't contain such obvious gaffes, although it is a relatively conventional and static rhetorical statement. Nonetheless, you can see the Senator's wife, who is credited as the source of his capacious knowledge of the Internet in his comments, appearing as a blonde bombshell at his side.

Unfortunately, the web page of the Senate Commerce Committee, which Stevens chairs, indicates that the group is scheduled to handle several important policy issues, including hearings on high-speed computing.

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