I wanted to explain a bit more my understanding of why we are delaying the congressional hearings. Please be very clear that I do not represent the committee and that this explanation is being sent in my capacity as the organizer of the Internet Town Hall.
The Internet Town Hall depends on voluntary donations from a large number of parties. For this Internet Town Hall, we've had a tremendous outpouring of support from groups such as O'Reilly & Associates, Sun Microsystems, Cisco, ARPA, Empirical Tools and Technologies, UUNET, Metropolitan Fiber Systems, and many others.
The purpose of this broad coalition is to demonstrate how the Internet works and how the Internet can be made to work in the congressional process. We wanted to make the point that there exists a general-purpose infrastructure that allows everything from email to IRC chat to WAIS databases to the World Wide Web to be accessed.
One of the key things we wanted to show the Congress was how audio and video can work over a general purpose infrastructure such as the Internet. Rather than transmit video over the key transit networks, which tend to get overloaded during events such as the Internet Town Hall, ARPA had agreed to furnish the use of DARTNET, the experimental advanced research network they operate.
The underlying transmission facilities for DARTNET are operated by Sprint. In order for the National Press Club, the headquarters site for the facility, to be part of DARTNET we required a T1 line from our facility to the Sprint point of presence a few blocks away. We had requested Sprint to provide that T1 line and become part of the Internet Town Hall.
In the course of examining our request, Sprint postulated that furnishing a T1 line for a congressional hearing might violate congressional ethics laws. There are in fact laws on the books that prohibit members of Congress or its committees from accepting in-kind donations over a certain value under certain circumstances. Sprint forwarded their concerns to the House Ethics Committee, and then later informed the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance and my organization of their actions.
Needless to say, there are technical alternatives to the T1 line that we asked Sprint to furnish. In fact, a single call to Metropolitan Fiber Systems resulted in a 10 Mbps virtual Ethernet using ATM between Washington, D.C. and Boston which is available for the hearing when it does occur.
Even though the technical issue is solved, there still remains the ethics concern. We firmly believe that a broad industry/government group volunteering time and money to show how the congressional process can be changed to include more input from the general public to be in the public interest. However, we are equally adamant that *ANY* ethical concerns *MUST* be cleared before we proceed with the hearings.
The crux of the issue has to do with in-kind contributions. If you are testifying before Congress, it is clearly allowed to bring in computers. However, a donation to the underlying infrastructure of the congressional committee might be construed as an expense that must be reimbursed by the committee to the donor. The purpose of such laws is to establish beyond the shadow of a doubt that the congressional process is clean and not subject to the undue influence of a particular interest group.
We believe that an on-line congressional hearing is in fact a desirable thing, particularly given the broad coalition formed to establish the infrastructure. However, we feel strongly that everybody involved in the process, whether they are familiar with the Internet or the law, must understand exactly what we intend to do and how those actions relate to the ethics laws.
As such, we will spend the next few months describing to congressional officials exactly what we have in mind for the hearings. Since this will be a historical occasion, there is no precedent for on-line hearings. We want to make sure that everybody is very comfortable with the issues and that officials believe that there is public benefit in such a demonstration.
I'd like to thank all the volunteers for their time and effort to date. A tremendous amount of behind the scenes efforts has already taken place and we're hoping to salvage some of that effort so we don't have to start from scratch. I'd also like to thank everybody on the network who sent in letters. The Subcommittee and Congressman Markey were truly impressed at the volume and the quality of the commentary from the public through e-mail and are looking forward to a successful on-line hearing later in the year.
Carl Malamud Internet Multicasting Service