April 23, 2024

Taking Stevens Seriously

From the lowliest blogger to Jon Stewart, everybody is laughing at Sen. Ted Stevens and his remarks (1.2MB mp3) on net neutrality. The sound bite about the Internet being “a series of tubes” has come in for for the most ridicule.

I’ll grant that Stevens sounds pretty confused on the recording. But’s let’s give the guy a break. He was speaking off the cuff in a meeting, and he sounds a bit agitated. Have you ever listened to a recording of yourself speaking in an unscripted setting? For most people, it’s pretty depressing. We misspeak, drop words, repeat phrases, and mangle sentences all the time. Normally, listeners’ brains edit out the errors.

In this light, some of the ridicule of Stevens seems a bit unfair. He said the Internet is made up of “tubes”. Taken literally, that’s crazy. But experts talk about “pipes” all the time. Is the gap between “tubes” and “pipes” really so large? And when Stevens says that his staff sent him “an Internet” and it took several days to arrive, it sounds to me like he meant to say “an email” and just misspoke.

So let’s take Stevens seriously, and consider the possibility that somewhere in his head, or in the head of a staffer telling him what to say, there was a coherent argument that was supposed to come out of Stevens’ mouth but was garbled into what we heard. Let’s try to reconstruct that argument and see if it makes any sense.

In particular, let’s look at the much-quoted core of Stevens’ argument, as transcribed by Ryan Singel. Here is my cleaned-up restatement of that part of Stevens’ remarks:

NetFlix delivers movies by mail. What happens when they start delivering them by download? The Internet will get congested.

Last Friday morning, my staff sent me an email and it didn’t arrive until Tuesday. Why? Because the Internet was congested.

You want to help consumers? Consumers don’t benefit when the Net is congested. A few companies want to flood the Internet with traffic. Why shouldn’t ISPs be able to manage that traffic, so other traffic can get through? Your regulatory approach would make that impossible.

The Internet doesn’t have infinite capacity. It’s like a series of pipes. If you try to push too much traffic through the pipes, they’ll fill up and other traffic will be delayed.

The Department of Defense had to build their own network so their time-critical traffic wouldn’t get blocked by Internet congestion.

Maybe the companies that want to dump so much traffic on the Net should pay for the extra capacity. They shouldn’t just dump their traffic onto the same network links that all of us are paying for.

We don’t have regulation now, and the Net seems to be working reasonably well. Let’s leave it unregulated. Let’s wait to see if a problem really develops.

This is a rehash of two of the standard arguments of neutrality regulation opponents: let ISPs charge sites that send lots of traffic through their networks; and it’s not broke so don’t fix it. Nothing new here, but nothing scandalous either.

His examples, on the other hand, seem pretty weak. First, it’s hard to imagine that NetFlix would really use up so much bandwidth that they or their customers weren’t already paying for. If I buy an expensive broadband connection, and I want to use it to download a few gigabytes a month of movies, that seems fine. The traffic I slow down will mostly be my own.

Second, the slow email wouldn’t have been caused by general congestion on the Net. The cause must be either an inattentive person or downtime of a Senate server. My guess is that Stevens was searching his memory for examples of network delays, and this one popped up.

Third, the DoD has plenty of reasons other than congestion to have its own network. Secrecy, for example. And a need for redundancy in case of a denial-of-service attack on the Internet’s infrastructure. Congestion probably ranks pretty far down the list.

The bottom line? Stevens may have been trying to make a coherent argument. It’s not a great argument, and his examples were poorly chosen, but it’s far from the worst argument ever heard in the Senate.

Why then the shock and ridicule from the Internet public? Partly because the recording was a perfect seed for a Net ridicule meme. But partly, too, because people unfamiliar with everyday Washington expect a high level of debate in the Senate, and Stevens’ remarks, even if cleaned up, don’t nearly qualify. As Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge put it, “We didn’t [post the recording] to embarrass Sen. Stevens, but to give the public an inside view of what can go on at a markup. Just so you know.” Millions of netizens now know, and they’re alarmed.


  1. The mob is online too nowadays. What do you expect? I think if only those people laughed who could give any better analogy – without resorting to grab one from Google – nobody would have laughed in the first place. I guess the same would have happened if he had used the common word “pipes”. The hypocrites were lucky though and thus don’t look as stupid as they are.

    I believe this shows the diversity of intelligence present on the internet (well mostly the web) today. It’s inline with attention whores at MySpace, self-pleasing blogs, pointless non-encyclopaedic crap articles at wikipedia etc. The internet has become “the street” and it shows.

  2. Ed Felten-

    The reason that this off-the-cuff “speech” has sparked so much criticism is because of the fact that this man is supposed to be in charge of regulating and enforcing internet policies and laws, but the fact that he doesn’t seem to know jack about the internet, as John Stewart kindly put it. Would you want to be operated on by a surgeon who doesn’t know jack about medicine and surgery? Or would you want your country run by a president who doesn’t know jack about economic, political, or foreign policies? Oh, wait….

  3. you have a crappy email service 5 days for email, I send and recieve in real time

  4. This wouldn’t just give them control over bandwidth used, right? Wouldn’t this also give the ISPs control over content, too? That’s the ultimate nail coffin for the so-called “free internet”, when the big companies are entangled with a christian fundamentalist theocractic government which values non-profanity more than freedom of speech (and richness of the language, by the way), videogame violence more than actual world violence and a culture of faith (blind, irrational belief) more than freedom of thought.

  5. Dr. Felten,

    My main complaint is that even after you rewrite the script, it still doesn’t make that much sense.

    For example, with the e-mail section of his speech. He mentions that he did not receive the e-mail from his staff member because the internet was congested. That seems very unusual, being in the IT field. As you stated, it was probally a downed senete server because they e-mail in theory would have been sent through their private LAN and not gone through the internet.

    If he is going to argue against net neutrality that is fine. He has a right to hold his own opinion, even if it is bought. If he is going to argue against it without any scripted work and formulate an argument off the top of his head, at least be remotely knowledgeable about the subject and do some sort of research first.


    Arguing with no prior knowledge about the topic would have been the equivalent of you going to court in your famous case against SDMI and not knowing which rights of yours were violated going into the court.

  6. Gavin,

    I’m not lining up to join the Ted Stevens fan club (if there is one). Nor am I sure that Stevens understood the argument I extracted from what he said. My point is just that comparing the Internet to “a series of tubes” is not by itself ridicule-worthy. If you want to criticize him on broader grounds — which you apparently do — that’s a different story.

    Still, it’s just a bit depressing that the substantive criticism of Stevens has gotten relatively little traction with the public, but the quickie video was a hit.

  7. I made the DJ Ted Stevens video, and I just want to say that it is not the first time this Senator has made a buffoon out of himself and has been the subject of ridicule. The man makes himself the target of parody by speaking without thinking. His bridge to nowhere tantrum was another prime example of how poorly he represents his constituents. Your defense of him made be well intended, but he deserves every single ounce of criticism and parody that he is receiving.

  8. bonapart says

    I agree that Stevens was trying to parrot some plausible argument against net neutrality, and just got a little mixed up along the way.

    I also agree that almost anyone who has been following both sides of this issue should have been able to translate Stevens’ argument on-the-fly into what he was trying to argue (or what he had been given to argue).

    None of this matters really, though, because what came through from Stevens argument (translated or not), is that he is not informed in the least about the issue… much less informed to the extent someone in his position should be.

    There was passion in his argument though, and I don’t think it was all theater. He was genuinely expressing his passion for telcom industry cash.

  9. Having lawmakers ramble when they’re not reading from a script is nothing new….

    “People who enjoy eating sausage and obeying the law should not watch either being made” – Otto von Bismarck

    … and those who like accurate quotations can enjoy finding the many versions of this one 🙂

  10. Maybe Stevens is an idot or just maybe he just doesn’t know what he is talking about. Does that mean you have to try to make sense of his rambling thoughts? Try that why the crazy F#*#@ on the bus bench asking for change, and rambling about UFOs. Please note that being a devils advocate, doesn’t mean you wipe the ass of every crazy you come across.

  11. Govt Skeptic says

    “Second, the slow email wouldn’t have been caused by general congestion on the Net . . . My guess is that Stevens was searching his memory for examples of network delays, and this one popped up.”
    My guess is that one of Stevens’ staffers forgot to send him something when promised and then blamed internet congestion for the delay. Who could have expected that a lame excuse would have turned in to the cornerstone of this boob’s argument?
    But at the core I agree — the reason to loathe Stevens is not because he incoherently regurgitated anti-net-neutrality talking points. Rather, we should loathe him because he is a powerful man who carries out his pro-corporate/anti-citizen servitude by incoherently regurgitating anti-net-neutrality talking points.
    Frankly, in a way I’d love to see these guys get their way and create a tiered/discriminatory internet. They’d be starting the first Internet World War, in which they would be massively outgunned by the militias of geeks who would instantly deploy thousands of tools to fool the tiering system. At which point, ISPs would buy legislation to make using those tools a 20yr felony, putting the ISPs in the same enviable position as the MP/RIAA. After all, who doesn’t love to sue their customers?
    How long before we realize that these congressfolk no longer represent us?

  12. I find it strange that anyone took issue with his “pipes” bit at all. It’s quoted as “The internet is like a series of pipes” with limited capacity, etc. etc. — it’s a perfectly acceptable analogy. He didn’t say it *was* a series of pipes, he said it was *like* a series of pipes in a certain respect.

  13. Barry wrote: “The entire concept behind Net Neutrality isn’t that content providers should be able to push as much content as they want at no cost to them. The concept is that the content they push should be handled the same way no matter what kind of content it is. Piping /dev/zero to your users should cost the same as sending out movies or handling VoIP.”

    And, perhaps more importantly, t’s also about *who* is at the other end of the pipe. Your search requests should be handled with the same level of service whether they’re going to MSN or Google. Your downloads should go as fast as possible, whether they’re coming from FilePlanet, YouTube, or Windows Update. Your VoIP quality shouldn’t be degraded just because you’re using a third party VoIP service instead of the one your ISP provides.

  14. Does anyone know exactly what Stevens is talking about when he mentions the private DoD network?

    Back in the day, there was MILNET, which expanded to become the DDN, but was later replaced by NIPRNet, SIPRNet, and JWICS. In both instances (MILNET + DDN and NIPRNet + SIPRNet + JWICS), the whole point of the networks being separated from the internet (ARPANET) was security. GCCS is time sensitive, but it is also very security sensitive (it runs on top of SIPRNET), so I don’t think that time criticality is why it is separated from the common internet.

  15. Ima Fish says

    Part of Ted Stevens’ critique of the Internet keeps bothering me. Multiple times he rails against any “commercial” use of the Internet. He seems to think it should be solely used for communication. I find that strange.

    I have to wonder whether he’s a moron or whether he’s being fed this BS by the anti-net neutrality crew. But what advantage could there be to keep the net primarily as a means of communication? My guess that it’s to protect the status quo.

    The ISPs (i.e., the telcos and the cable companies) want to keep part of the network for emailing and instant messaging. But implicit in Stevens’ message is that commercial content should never be a part of the net. But where would services such as video on demand or VoIP come from, you may ask?! Well, your ISP of course.

    In other words, you’d get commercial services through your ISP and email and instant messaging through the Internet.

    This system, if I’m right, is far more nefarious than I ever imagined the tiered Internet would be. Essentially, ISPs want to gut the Internet of anything of interest and take it back to 1994. Then give us everything of interest back, only this time, they’ll either be providing it themselves, or at least will be getting a cut of it.

    I’ve said it many times, allowing the Internet to be provided by the telcos and the cable companies was a bad idea. Both of their business models (expansive phone calls, video conferencing, video on demand, pay per view movies, etc) will be destroyed by a cheap and open Internet. This is just their means to keep themselves relevant when their business models go belly-up.

    Or, Stevens could just be as stupid as he sounds.

  16. I think another small part adding to the ridicule is that Stevens is the epitome of a pork barrel politician. For example, he made an empty threat to resign when the Senate decided to can his “Bridge to Nowhere” project. He is “Exhibit A” for why the Senate, like the Electoral College, breeds political inequality.

    For those reasons, I do not think there were very many political observers who are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And as you demonstrate, his comments do not really hold much water even when they are made tidy.

  17. Stevens’s argument falls flat in another sense: nobody’s saying that ISP customers (be they Google or my next door neighbor) shouldn’t pay for the bandwidth they use. If YouTube puts 50TB of content in their, um, tube, a month, they should pay for their 50TB same as anyone, and their ISP should use that money in part to fuel their upgrades so they’re prepared for the next offering to come along.

    The entire concept behind Net Neutrality isn’t that content providers should be able to push as much content as they want at no cost to them. The concept is that the content they push should be handled the same way no matter what kind of content it is. Piping /dev/zero to your users should cost the same as sending out movies or handling VoIP. And that sort of discrimination has absolutely jack to do with the Internet being wires, tubes, pipes, bendy straws, or smoke signals.

  18. FYI, _The Register_ just ran an interesting
    Interview with Richard Bennett about Net Neutrality

  19. Randy Picker says

    Good for you. There are any number of reasons not to be happy with Stevens (the bridge to nowhere and the great extent to which he can tilt debate over the universal service fund in favor of Alaska (and I say this with a brother-in-law in Anchorage)), but tubes vs. pipes isn’t it (and tubes matches nicely with old-style ship communications). As to the high level of debate, we should think the Pecos River: a mile wide and an inch deep. Just too many issues to be that good on any one of them. The fact that the Senate thinks of itself as the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body doesn’t mean that it is particularly good. As to the UK, Commons Questions Time is fabulous, but it would be interesting to listen to them talk about communications policy sometime.

  20. I R A Darth Aggie says

    If I buy an expensive broadband connection, and I want to use it to download a few gigabytes a month of movies, that seems fine. The traffic I slow down will mostly be my own.

    Agreed. I’ve been of the opinion that if Google spends enough money for its bandwidth, and that I spend my money for my bandwidth, then it is no longer any business of the provider what we choose to do with the bandwidth. Allowing for Acceptible Use Policies, of course.

    This suggests some interesting goings-on at the consumer end of the pipe.

    a) the end providers are over-booking users under the assumption that they all can’t use the bandwidth they’re paying for and never notice what they’re not getting so long as what they are getting is snappy enough.

    b) (related to a) the end providers didn’t have enough infrastructure to support their end users as promised in a 24/7 environment, and are unwilling to spend the money to reliably meet that level of service,

    c) the providers see an opportunity to make more money

    I would hazard a guess that a) or b) is likely to be more true than I know, but that c) is the primary reason.

  21. Jared,

    We should demand a high level of debate. But we should realize that we often don’t get it.

  22. I second Jared. Ever watch debates in the UK?

  23. It’s good to have some sensible commentary on what he said.

    But I think you go just a little astray on the last part.

    Part of the reason for the ridicule is that there is a deep cultural feeling among techies that everyone else doesn’t “get it”, and they’re all idiots (sometimes the others are indeed idiots, but this isn’t completely identical to not being a tech geek). To this end, every misstep and gaffe is fodder for memesterbating or worse.

    The Al Gore “Invented The Internet” story is the best example of this cultural process at work. A substantial segment of geekdom (not all, but too many) simply cannot believe a politician deserves credit for *anything*, almost by definition.

    I don’t think this was a matter of not high level debate. I think it was that if you’re not chanting the rants, you’re going to get flamed by peanut gallery.

  24. Why shouldn’t we expect high levels of debate in the Senate?