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Science Talk

Future of the Internet: Net Neutrality, the Semantic Web, plus some comments on science by the mayor of New York.

In this episode, Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, talks about legislation that will decide the future of "network neutrality." Net neutrality means that transmission rates to and from all websites are the same, rather than some websites being able to steer traffic their way through faster rates. Also, Tim Berners-Lee spoke at the 15th International World Wide Web Conference, which took place last week in Scotland. The inventor of the web talked about net neutrality and the semantic web, whereby computers will sync their info about us seamlessly, saving us the work. Plus, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg made a strong, pro-science speech last week, and we'll hear a highlight. Finally, we'll test your knowledge about some other recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this podcast include Center for Digital Democracy www.democraticmedia.org, Pro-net neutrality www.savetheinternet.com, Anti-net neutrality www.handsoff.org, World Wide Web conference www.www2006.org, Berners-Lee Scientific American article on the Semantic Web http://tinyurl.com/9w34, Mayor Bloomberg's pro-science speech http://tinyurl.com/lrvof, Scientific American http://blog.sciam.com, Scientific American website www.sciam.com.

Male voice: Novartis—committed to making innovative medicines for a world of patients and their families, online at novartis.com Novartis…. Think what's possible.

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting May 31st. I am Steve Mirsky. On this week's podcast, absolutely no news about Brad and Angelina's baby. Most of the podcast this week will be devoted to the future of the Internet, A huge issue is what's known as net neutrality—basically that all traffic on the net is treated the same rather than some traffic getting preferential treatment. Legislation that's slowly working its way through the U.S. Congress right now could change the World Wide Web forever—in the U.S. at least—by making some lanes of the information superhighway toll roads. We will talk to Jeff Chester about that. Also the fifteenth international World Wide Web Conference took place last week in Scotland. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web had some things to say about net neutrality. He also had some comments about the so called Semantic Web, which if you haven't heard of yet you certainly will soon and a lot. Also New York City, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, made one of the biggest pro-science speeches from a politician you're going to hear, last week at the commencement of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and we'll hear a few moments of it. Plus, we will test your knowledge about some other science in the news.

First up, Jeff Chester. He is the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. I called him at his home in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Steve: Hi Jeff. How are you today?

Jeff: I am fine. Thank you Steve.

Steve: You are the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. What is that?

Jeff: It's a nonprofit research and public education organization based in Washington, D.C. One of the things that we do is examine what's happening in the United States with digital media—how is the commercial market going to develop, how could we ensure that the digital media systems serves the needs of our democracy as well as the commerce. So, we take an extended look, and when we find things that concern us, we try to sound the alarm.

Steve: Could you talk about what's going on, especially with Congress and the future of the Internet?

Jeff: Right now in Washington D.C., there is a heated legislative debate about whether the Congress should impose policy safeguards that would, in the words of advocates such as myself, restore the Internet['s] basic characteristics of nondiscrimination. What I mean by that is that in the 1990s the dial-up Internet, the slower Internet, evolved over telephone lines that had been governed by the Telecommunications Commission and the Congress and were required to act in an equitable and nondiscriminatory manner. In the 1990s the dial-up Internet was required to treat all Web sites, all Internet contents, fairly—couldn't discriminate against any one content. The people that brought you the Internet—your phone companies—couldn't say, well, I don't like that e-mail, well I don't want you really accessing that search engine site so quickly, I want to slow it down or speed something up; they couldn't do that. The phone companies were prohibited under federal laws. Well, the phone and cable industry have developed a business model for the future of the U.S. broadband Internet, where they wish to be able to increase their revenues—which they claim is necessary [if we're]for going to see a build up of broadband in the United States—and they wish to offer services based on different levels of these. They went to the Telecommunications Commission and got the FCC to eliminate the nondiscriminatory public policy safeguard for the Internet, so they could begin offering all kinds of different, what they call peered services. Right now, Congress is debating whether or not to restore that basic principle of nondiscrimination for the Internet in the United States; it's called network neutrality and if such legislation passes as part of the communications law revision now before the Congress it would continue this tradition of not allowing the company that brings you the physical connection in any way [to] act to influence the kind of speed and service you receive as an end user.

Steve: So, for example, right now if I try to access Amazon online versus Barnes & Noble online, I don't know what speed things are coming at me at; however, there might be a system in place in the near future—depending on how the legislation goes— where Amazon has paid extra money to the Internet provider—to the cable company—where their stuff comes in much faster than Barnes & Noble's stuff, so their pages load faster, my responses go faster, and I wind up using them more than I would use Barnes & Noble or any other book company that is selling their books on the Web. Is that what's going on?

Jeff: That's exactly what the foreign cable companies have in mind. They wanted to be able to charge those additional fees, so an Amazon or Barnes & Noble for example can beat out the competition; but that's wise [flies] in the face of how the Internet was developed. It was envisioned as an open medium of expression where all contents were treated more or less fairly, the intelligent service being was not controlled by who delivered you the Internet, but by the content that was put on the Internet. So, there had been winners and losers in the marketplace with Google and Yahoo, and eBay, for example, being the most famous ones; they created a product that people thought was smart, but they didn't have to pay money to the phone and cable companies to ensure that they could be able to reach consumers. So, all the network neutrality rules would do would simply prohibit the phone companies from speeding up, lets say, the video of a Disney and slowing down the video of a Time Warner, all that kind of similar contents would have to be treated the same way and let the end-user consumer decide, what should succeed in the marketplace, a TNT or Comcast.

Steve: And what's—right now today, I mean, we're going to be up on May 31st with this podcast. What is the current state of legislation? I know something just came out of committee in the House of Representatives. What's going on there?

Jeff: The House Judiciary Committee, it last week passed a bill that would require network neutrality. Network neutrality provisions have not been included in the main communications bill, that have either been passed by the House of Commerce Committee are now being debated in front of the Senate Commerce Committee, but there is bipartisan support for network neutrality that developed in both houses of Congress and we are likely to see battle soon on the house floor and within the Senate Commerce Committee over whether or not they should include the network neutrality provision in whatever is the final communication bill. There are all kinds of strange bedfellows here in this battle. The phone/cable industry, actually, is fighting each other in Washington over the future of cable television; will always is also before congress, but they are working side by side along with the wireless industry to oppose this call for so-called network neutrality. On the other hand my group supports the safeguard; you have organizations like the Christian Coalition and the Gun Owners of America standing side by side with groups such as moveon.org and Common Cause. (laughs) So, it's rolling [roiling] Washington, D.C., and I think it does illustrate how important it is that the United States does develop—have a debate actually—about what the public policy should be to ensure that we have an Internet medium that serves everyone.

Steve: And when do you think the final communications bill is going to be voted on in and what do you think is going to happen?

Jeff: Well, members of Congress say they're going to pass that legislation probably in December and Senator [Ted] Stevens, Republican of Alaska, who is the powerful chair of the Senate Commerce Committee predicts that there will be such legislation on the president's desk this year. However the phone and cable companies might want to try and kill the bill. If network neutrality provisions are included in the final legislation, this is really a battle over the future soul of the U.S. Internet. The phone and cable industry and even the Googles and Microsoft[s] have understandably a very commercialized vision in mind; and even with network neutrality what the Microsoft or Google or Yahoo hopes to do, [same] as a rise in a TNT or Comcast, they wish d[t]o dominate in the delivery of digital communications to consumers. What we have to do is to make sure that the Internet evolves in the next few years serving a variety of interests, not just the goals of e-commerce and delivery of interactive advertising, which is really what most of the phone/cable companies and the Microsoft[s] wish to do, but that it also serves the need of our democracy, that [it] has a free speech function; and that's one reason why we want network neutrality. So, if you want to make sure that content that doesn't necessarily pay for itself in the market place—I'm talking about political speech, arts and culture, community information, education—so that kind of content doesn't get shunted off until [into] the flow vain [vein] as well. So much is at stake here, even though in Washington it seems only as a battle among the giants, but it is really about how the Internet serves us and our children.

Steve: Jeff—thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Jeff: Thank you.

Steve: Jeff Chester's book, called Digital Destiny is scheduled to come out in January. The Web site for the center for digital democracy is www.democraticmedia.org. It's not affiliated with the Democratic Party. As Jeff Chester said, one of the interesting things about net neutrality is the proponents and opponents are not split along typical party lines. For example, the Republican chair and the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee are cosponsors of pro–net neutrality legislation and meanwhile Mike McCurry, who was President Clinton's press secretary, is against it. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, has gone on record now as being pro–net neutrality and here's what he said last week at the World Wide Web Conference in Scotland.

Tim: There are places where we do need regulation and it's not a bad thing, where we need control. Now if we think of the market economy as being something, which is a question of freedom that everybody can do whatever they like; however, you are not allowed to print money. Now that simple little rule (laughs) actually allows the market to accept the concept of money to work. But when you come up to the Internet and the question about the neutrality of the media, then it's not, I mean, yes part of it is that it's more efficient and is better for us all to have a separate independent market for how we get our connectivity and a separate form of the market how we get our content. Both markets just thrive. If I don't end up getting some connections which only will ask me to connect to certain Web sites, right, it's better for to the Internet market, it's better for the Web site market, but it's not just talking about markets, because the Internet is about information. Information is what I use to make all my decisions—not just about what to buy, but about how to vote, how to behave. Now the democratic society relies on people being informed. With Internet we've got the possibility of being much better informed and being able to put together more interesting democratic structures which rely on more communication, and in particular communication across geographical boundaries.

Steve: For more info on net neutrality, check out savetheinternet.com the[y]re are for net neutrality. Then there is Hands Off the Internet; their Web site is handsoff.org, and they are against net neutrality regulation. On the technical side, Tim Berners-Lee has been thinking about what's called a Semantic Web for many years. His Scientific American article on this subject was published in May of 2001. This Semantic Web is basically an updated World Wide Web that would be smarter rather than being user friendly for us people that would allow computers to talk to each other better, which would invisibly do a lot of work for us humans rather than by us humans. At the World Wide Web Conference last week in Scotland, Berners-Lee said that the technologies necessary for the Semantic Web are now in place. Here's more of what he had to say about the Semantic Web last week at the conference.

Tim -Lee: Data, I insist is important too. There is a lot of things about the facts about what's going on. So for example, this press conference probably got a Web page about it somewhere. When you go to the Web page, you find it on your computer and it's got data like the start time of the conference, the end time of the conference and the address which actually corresponds to latitudes and longitudes and altitudes where we are in this building. It's got a list of people to contact like Dave and his contact information. Now what happens when you take—you read this Web page about it and you decide I am going to go to this, so you would like tell your computer, I am going to go to this meeting. Then what you have to do when you decide to go to the meeting? Well, you pull the—take down a piece of paper and pencil and you note down the name of the person organizing it, in case he is contacted, and you go to a different application. You open up your address book and you type in the name and you may copy and paste, right, and you are moving the data from this Web page where it is more or less intact and you put it into your address book. Now here, this is like before the Web, haven't used completely different applications to go to different documentation sources. You've got you sorting your data about the people that you know and then you got this Web page, which has got the data on, really you ought to just drag something on the Web page across to your address book or in fact logically if you said, I am going to that, then your address book will automatically be told of all the people who are relevant and the GPS in your pocket now which is Blue Toothed to your laptop will say, oh—at this time my master will be at this location, so that should go over the Blue Tooth. Why doesn't that happen? It doesn't happen because the information on there is in human-readable form, but there is nothing to tell a computer that this is the start date, this is an end date and this is the location, and this is the person and this is their phone number and this is their mobile phone and that it's not really rocket science. So what we're doing in the Semantic Web is we're putting a language which is called RDF. RDF is a data, but HTML is a document, so you could write that information in RDF and now if you have a Semantic Web-enabled piece of software, you just say I am going to that meeting and (noise of tapping keys) then all that data will go into all data light places in your laptop where it needs to be.

Steve: Tim Berners-Lee's Scientific American article on the Semantic Web is available free just Google Scientific American and Berners-Lee—B-e-r-n-e-r-s hyphen L-e-e; or go to tinyurl.com/9w34 . And for more info on the recent World Wide Web Conference, just go to www2006.org; now there is no dot after the three w's there—it's not w-w-w-dot-2006, it's www2006.org—and they're also in the process of putting up some podcasts from the conference, so check that out.

We'll be right back

Robot voice: When there is some thought about the podcast, let us know what you think by participating in our survey at www.sciam.com/research.

Steve: Now its time to play TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.

Here are four science stories, but only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Jupiter's famous great Red Spot has been joined by a little version that's been dubbed Red Spot Junior.

Story number 2: Apple is making an iPod that has a sensor that alerts you with a beep through your ear buds to tell you if somebody is behind you trying to pass.

Story number 3: A study shows that the coloration of a particular kind of mouse may be dictated in part by RNA that is being directly passed on from parent to offspring rather than the usual stuff of heredity DNA.

Story number 4: It's nice to be an ape at the Budapest's zoo; they get to drink wine as part of their diets.

We'll be back with the answer. But first, New York City Mayor, Mike Bloomberg graduated from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1964. Last week, he gave an incredibly strong pro-science address at the commencement exercises of the Hopkins School of Medicine. Here's the highlight.

Mike: Today we're seeing hundreds of years of scientific discovery being challenged by people who simply disregard facts that don't happen to agree with their agenda. Some call it pseudoscience, others call it faith-based science, but when you notice where this negligence tends to take place, you might as well call it political science. You can see political science at work when it comes to global warming. Despite near again unanimity in the science community [there] is now a movement driven by ideology and short-term economics to ignore the evidence and discredit the reality of climactic change. You can see political science at work with respect to stem-cell research; despite its potential the federal government has restricted funding for creating new cell lines, putting the burden of any future research squarely on the shoulders of the private sector. Now government's most basic responsibility is the health and wealth of its people, so it has a duty to encourage appropriate scientific investigations that could possibly save the lives of millions. But it's not doing that. Political science knows no limits. Was there anything more inappropriate than watching political science try to override medical science in the Terry Schiavo case? And it boggles the mind that nearly two centuries after Darwin and 80 years after John Scopes was put on trial, the country is still debating the validity of evolution. In Kansas, Mississippi and elsewhere, school districts are now proposing to teach intelligent design, which is really just creationism by another name—in science classes, alongside evolution. Think about it! This not only devalues science, it cheapens theology as well as condemning those students to an inferior education—it ultimately hurts their professional opportunities. Johns Hopkins' motto is Verita vos liberabit—the truth shall set you free—not that, you shall be free to set the truth. I've always wondered which science those legislators who have created their own truths will pick when their families need life-saving medical treatment.

Steve: You can read or watch Mayor Bloomberg's entire 16-minute reality check by going to tinyurl.com/irvof .

We'll be right back.

Male voice: Novartis—committed to making innovative medicines for a world of patients and their families, online at novartis.com Novartis…. Think what's possible.

Steve: Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL…….Y BOGUS.

Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: Jupiter now has a great red spot and a little red spot.

Story number 2: New iPod alerts you of somebody's behind you.

Story number 3: Mouse study implicates RNA rather than DNA in

some rare cases of inheritance.

Story number 4: Budapest's zoo apes get wine.

Time's up.

Story number 1 is true. A little red spot has recently joined the great red spot as a noticeable feature on Jupiter. Little is relative. It's only half the size of the big one, but the big one measures about the Earth's diameter across. You can read more about Red Spot Junior in Michael Battaglia's story in our blog —that's blog.sciam.com.

Story number 3 is true. A study with mice published in Nature last week showed that in a rare case, it might be RNA in addition to the usual DNA that's going along for the ride from one generation to the next and is directly responsible for the presence of some traits. You can read more about this research in David Biello's article "Mouse Finding Violates Laws of Heredity"; that's at our Web site, www.sciam.com.

Story number 4 is true. Reuters reports that the apes in the Budapest zoo get about five liters of wine each over the course of the year because of wine's seeming cardiovascular benefits. The apes don't really get ripped because they get just a few drops at a time—the Reuters story notes—mixed in with their tea, which means that the apes at the Budapest zoo get tea! In addition to their wine. So, good life for the apes in Budapest.

All of which means that story number 2 about the new iPod that lets you know that somebody is behind you, say on a bicycle, say while you’re running right down the middle of a recreational path, say, while I am on the bike behind you screaming at you to please get over to the right, but you can't hear me because your tunes are on so loud, is TOTALL…….Y BOGUS! What's true is that iPod is teaming up with Nike to make a sensor that'll send info from your running shoes to the iPod to track your performance and what's also true is when you are running along on the single lane paths, please stay over to the right and consider keeping that left ear free, so you can hear whatever may be about to hit you.

Oh, and here's a follow up to the Totally Bogus section in podcast number 5, it was announced this week that International Space Station Commander Pavel Vinogradof will not be allowed to whack a golf ball into orbit from the station. Said a spokesman for the mission, we've made changes to the program and cosmonauts are not launching any balls into space this time. Besides Vinogradof had a terrible lie. We'll be right back

Rennie: I am John Rennie, the editor in chief of Scientific American magazine. If you'd like a free preview issue of Scientific American, as well as a gift, visit www.sciam.com today.

Steve: Well that's it for this edition of the Scientific American podcast. Our e-mail address is podcast@sciam.com; and also remember that science news is updated daily on the Scientific American Web site, www.sciam.com. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Web sites mentioned on this podcast include [the] Center for Digital Democracy www.democraticmedia.org; Pro–net neutrality www.savetheinternet.com; Anti–net neutrality www.handsoff.org; World Wide Web conference www.www2006.org; Berners-Lee's Scientific American article on the Semantic Web http://tinyurl.com/9w34; Mayor Bloomberg's pro-science speech http://tinyurl.com/lrvof; Scientific American http://blog.sciam.com; Scientific American Web site http://www.sciam.com.

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