Vint Cerf Wonders If We Need To Nationalize the Internet

Should the Internet be owned and maintained by the government, just like the highways? Vint Cerf, the “father of the Internet” and Google’s Internet evangelist, made this radical suggestion while he was sitting next to me on a panel yesterday about national tech policy at the Personal Democracy Forum. Maybe he was inspired by the presence of one of the other panelists, Claudio Prado, from Brazil’s Ministry of Culture, who kept on talking about the importance of embracing Internet “peeracy.” (Although, I should note that Mr. Cerf frowned upon that ill-advised coinage). But I think (or hope, rather) that he was really trying to spark a debate about whether the Internet should be treated more like the public resource that it is.

His comment was in the context of a bigger discussion about the threat to Net neutrality posed by the cable and phone companies, who are making moves to control the amount and types of bits that can go through their pipes. It was made almost in passing and the discussion quickly moved to other topics.

Maybe I didn’t fully understand him (I wasn’t taking notes), and he certainly is better versed in the issues at hand than everyone else who was in that auditorium combined. But nationalizing the Internet is bad idea. (I can’t believe I even have to say this). It would set a horrible precedent, would undermine confidence in the American economy, and would be difficult to pull off.

I tried to press Mr. Cerf on how exactly such a scheme would work without making Internet service even less competitive than it is today. He offered that the government could put the actual running of the service out to competitive bidding. It’s still a bad idea.

The Internet is essentially a series of agreements between owners of different networks about how data gets passed from one to the other. It is not clear what property exactly would be nationalized. AT&T’s backbone fiber network, for instance, sometimes carries Internet traffic, and sometimes carries telephone voice traffic. So if the government were to confiscate all the data pipes, they would nationalize the phone industry as well.

While nationalizing the Internet is the wrong solution, the problem it would address is very real. The ground rules for how the Internet is used need to be clarified. And that was the bigger point that Mr. Cerf was trying to make. But the government does not need to own the underlying assets that make up the Internet in order to set up ground rules that American companies need to abide by. That is what laws are for.

I have some ideas on how the government can actually do something useful here. More on that in a future post.