Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) chairman Dr Vinton Cerf told an Internet governance roundtable in Sydney that -- in his personal opinion -- it was easy to answer the question of how to regulate VoIP.
"That's the wrong question," he said. "We don't regulate it."
Cerf -- known as the 'father of the Internet' due to his part in developing the TCP/IP protocol which enables Internet communications -- said legislators needed to update their thinking for the new generation of services.
"A problem in the regulatory world," he said, "is that communications media is particularly associated with the delivery service."
Consequently, Cerf said, regulators could not differentiate between regulation of normal telephony and VoIP, because to a casual observer they appeared to be the same technology, even though they were delivered over radically different mediums.
"My concern here is the fact that VoIP looks like, and sounds like telephony," he said. "This is horribly misleading. To leap to that conclusion is extremely dangerous. VoIP is really just another application on the Internet. Nothing special about it."
If legislators chose to define VoIP the same way they did normal telephony, Cerf warned, "they will discover that they have legislated themselves into a pretty big corner".
ICANN chief executive Paul Twomey said his personal opinion was in line with Cerf's and weighed in to the debate on whether VoIP phones should be able to call emergency services numbers such as triple-zero. Twomey said that regulators should not class VoIP phones as normal telephones and force providers to give access to emergency services.
"If it's a telephone number, as part of a numbering plan, it's supposed to have access to emergency services," Twomey clarified. However not all VoIP services are allocated a telephone number.
Cerf also addressed law enforcement agencies' concerns that VoIP technology would allow criminals to elude telecommunications interception.
"My reaction to this would be if you're too dumb to figure out how to do it [interception], then you don't deserve to," Cerf stated. He pointed out that hand-held mobile devices such as Blackberries already included significant processing power that would allow criminals to encrypt their communications.
But regulation was not the only aspect of VoIP that Cerf had an opinion on: quality of service was also on his agenda. The ICANN chairman rubbished claims that consumers couldn't rely on the quality of VoIP calls and tried to give some perspective on the issue.
"Do you rely on e-mail, do you rely on Google? Do you rely on your mobile? Talk to me about reliable," he said.
"When we were first doing VoIP in 1975, we only had a 50-kilobit backbone, and 1800 bits per second. It was highly compressed and sounded like a drunken Norwegian."