WASHINGTON — Sen. Ted Stevens picked a bad time to go tubular.
The Alaska Republican is being hammered by bloggers for describing the Internet as a "series of tubes" in a rambling speech last month in which he defended a telecommunications bill that could influence how information flows online.
As chairman of the Commerce Committee, Stevens is one of Washington's leading players on technology policy. But his disjointed description of how the Internet works -- digitally recorded and spreading like wildfire through those "tubes" -- has led some opponents of the legislation to portray him as a Luddite doing the bidding of phone and cable companies that want to charge websites for faster content delivery.
"Stevens has amplified for the country the extent to which he and his colleagues don't understand the fundamental issues that are at stake," said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, a nonpartisan media-reform organization. The group, along with many others and leading Internet companies, wants to prohibit the building of "toll lanes" on the World Wide Web. The issue is known as network neutrality.
Stevens, 82, who wrote the bill, defended his position at a June 28 hearing, complaining that some companies clog the Internet with "enormous amounts of material" -- so much that it took four days to receive an e-mail from his staff.
"The Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck," Stevens said. "It's a series of tubes."
Experts often describe the wires and fiber-optic strands that carry Internet data as pipes, pointed out a Stevens aide, who asked not to be named. But to many bloggers and others, Stevens' meandering monologue made him appear bewildered about the inner workings of the Net.
They called him "dazed and confused," "a backwoods hick" and "completely clueless." A search of "Stevens" and "series of tubes" produced 200,000 Web links, including a song with parts of Stevens' speech set to a thumping techno beat.
On Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" on Wednesday, Jon Stewart mused that Stevens sounded like "a crazy old man in an airport bar at 3 a.m." And there was a simple explanation for why his e-mail was delayed, the comedian continued.
"Maybe it's because you don't seem to know ... about computers or the Internet," he said. "You're just the guy in charge of regulating it."