Senator’s stupdity is ‘Net fodder

McClatchy Newspapers 

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is enduring no end of ridicule in the blogosphere for his recent explanation, in a Commerce Committee debate, of how the Internet works.

"The Internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a truck. It’s a series of tubes," he said during a June 28 committee session.

"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 it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material."

At another point in his 11-minute discourse, he said he’d seen these delays firsthand: "I just the other day got _ an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday and I just got it yesterday. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially."

Internet pundits greeted his explanations with a nonstop snigger fest, with extra helpings of derision, on sites such as boingboing, Daily Kos, Fark, MySpace and YouTube.

"Ted Stevens, unfrozen caveman senator," was the pronouncement on Wonkette.

Snorting loudest are bloggers who are angry at Stevens for not adding a nondiscrimination provision _ known as "net neutrality" _ to the communications bill that he wants Congress to pass this year.

The transcript of his remarks, and links to the recording itself, have been circulating like crazy. Blog viewers can find a tube T-shirt design, a PowerPoint cartoon and a Ted Stevens techno remix, which has Stevens repeating "a series of tubes!" and extended umm-ing and er-ing. By Friday, the techno remix was being celebrated in a video showing all manner of vacuum tubes, pneumatic tubes and other 1950s-style technology.

Bits of Stevens’ speech aired on Comedy Central’s "The Daily Show" this week. Host Jon Stewart had an alternate explanation for why it took so long for Stevens to receive his staff’s e-mail: "Maybe it’s because you do not seem to know jack BLEEP about computers or the Internet . . . but hey, you’re just the guy in charge of regulating it."

Stevens, as the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is pushing a rewrite of the nation’s fundamental communications act. His online critics say his speech shows he’s not the right person to make modern communications policy. He’s had few defenders in the blog world, and the episode has been mentioned in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Times of London. The Stevens entry in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia now includes a lengthy recap of the tube speech and its aftermath.

Communications lobbyists _ particularly those who side with him on "net neutrality," but also some who don’t _ say Stevens is getting a bad rap. They say he was employing analogy in the tubes statement. He understands communications-technology issues just fine, they say, however inarticulate he may have sounded at one particular moment. Stevens, many attest, is a BlackBerry junkie whose thumbs sometimes are flying over the device during meetings.

Stevens’ staff director on the Commerce Committee, Lisa Sutherland, said the bloggers were making fun of Stevens for a pretty minor mistake: saying "tubes" rather than "pipes." The latter is common slang in the telecom industry, especially when discussing the Internet carrying capacity of phone lines or cable.

"Senator Stevens chaired 26 hearings and sat through a half-dozen listening sessions (on communications issues), some that lasted an entire day," Sutherland said. "I can tell you from personal conversations with him almost daily on these topics that he understands the technical, the legal and the economic aspects of new technologies and how they will be deployed . . . throughout the nation."

At the heart of the barbs is Stevens’ stance on "net neutrality." It’s a polarizing, complicated issue that has, on one side, the corporations that bring the Internet into homes and offices _ such as AT&T, BellSouth and cable companies _ and on the other, the companies that provide the services that people use on the Internet _ most prominently Google, craigslist, eBay and Microsoft.

The content providers say that without new laws, the telephone and cable companies will become self-serving Internet gatekeepers, letting traffic flow quickly to vendors with whom they have financial affiliations and slowly to their competitors.

Craig Newmark, the creator of craigslist, described the possible threat this way: Imagine you call Joe’s Pizza and the first thing you hear is a recording saying your call will be connected in a minute or two, or you can be connected to Pizza Hut right away. That’s what proponents of net neutrality say that telephone and cable companies want to do to the Internet. They say that whatever speed customers pay for, that’s what they should get, no matter what Web sites they visit.

The phone and cable companies, on the other hand, say they wouldn’t do anything to compromise Internet freedom and that if they tried to, their customers would dump them for other Internet providers. They say the net neutrality protections proposed would hamper innovation.

Proponents of net neutrality say all similar types of data should be treated the same. If it’s decided that telemedicine should have a priority, it shouldn’t matter whether the doctors are at Johns Hopkins or the Mayo Clinic, said Craig Aaron, the communications director for Free Press, which coordinates a large coalition that’s lobbying for net neutrality.

Aaron makes no apology for celebrating some of the comical interpretations of Stevens’ tubes speech on the coalition’s Web site. It’s an easier entryway into a technically difficult subject, he said.

"Anything that brings people to this issue and lets the public know this debate is happening is good," he said. "If that has to be a techno remix of Ted Stevens, all the better."