Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), shown in Seattle, Washington, in April 2006.
(Seattle Times / Betty Udesen)
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.
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 Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck. It's a series of tubes," Stevens 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.
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.
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.
The transcript of his remarks, and links to the recording itself, have been circulating like crazy. Blog viewers can find a tubes 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."
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.
"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 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.
Take GCI, a phone and Internet provider in Stevens' home state. Company executives say they've been talking to Web-based businesses that require high-speed connections to work properly. Some of GCI's customers choose to buy the cheapest, slowest connection available. A site that sells streaming video may want to treat that customer to a higher speed whenever he or she visits, the GCI execs say.
"Instead of the customers having to buy the top speeds, the providers buy the top speeds and give it to the lower-speed customers for free," said Dana Tindall, GCI's senior vice president for governmental affairs.
A net neutrality law would make arrangements such as that impossible, Tindall said. And, she said, neutrality legislation could make it impossible to prioritize among uses.
"It would make it very difficult to manage capacity such that everyone had a good Internet experience," she said, "because it would enable applications that come in and just take all the capacity (to do so), without being able to do anything about it."
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."
Do these portrayals accurately reflect Stevens' technical knowledge of the Internet?
"All I can say is the statement speaks for itself," Aaron said. "Here is the member of Congress driving the legislation that is going to reshape the future of the Internet giving a speech that suggests he may not have a lot of experience with the Internet."
Ed Ingle, Microsoft's top lobbyist, said he still hoped that Stevens' position on net neutrality would evolve. Microsoft is part of the pro-net neutrality lobby.
Whatever led Stevens to the position he's taken, it wasn't a lack of technical knowledge, according to Ingle. Over the past year or two, Stevens has engaged Microsoft's top technologists, including Bill Gates, in several "robust discussions," Ingle said. Stevens seemed to have no trouble understanding the Microsoft people and asked probing questions, he said.
"Truly, we would love if all senators were as sophisticated on technical issues as Senator Stevens," Ingle said. "I would honestly put him among the most technology-savvy members of the Senate ... and that is something, considering that some of them have engineering degrees."
But opinions like that are unlikely to change Stevens' online reputation as a codger whose mind is stuck in the mimeograph age.
"I'm not even reading any comments that suggest otherwise because I'm not going to let anyone kill the funny with this one," one blog contributor wrote.
© 2006 McClatchy Newspapers