Last week, Google and Verizon came out with a controversial policy recommendation in an attempt to solve the dispute over net neutrality. Our readers may remember a short blog I wrote in May about a battle over internet regulation between Comcast and the FCC—a battle that Google and Verizon hope to end with this proposal.
The short agreement outlines principles for dealing with the regulation of data flow on the internet. It specifies a limited role for the FCC, which would adjudicate conflicts on a case-by-case basis, based on standards created by what the agreement calls “independent, widely-recognized Internet community government initiatives.” It also sets out basic consumer protections for internet service, barring internet service providers (ISPs) from preventing anyone from using broadband internet in lawful ways.
The agreement also demands transparency from ISPs—insisting they “disclose accurate and relevant information in plain language about the characteristics… of their… services necessary for consumers and others to make informed choices.” It ends with recommendations for the government to support the development of internet in low-income areas.
This sounds like a promising step toward ensuring equitable and universal internet access. However, many internet watchdogs are up in arms over the proposal. “Advocates of net neutrality will look at these documents and charge betrayal,” insists blogger Matthew Lasar. Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lobbying group, claims the agreement includes some “really terrible ideas.”
The crux of the criticism is this: While promising on its face, Google and Verizon’s agreement contains exceptions and ambiguities that could undermine what it claims to protect.
First, let’s talk about these “independent initiatives” the agreement charges with developing rules for acceptable data management. Individuals from within the industry would populate these groups, which is promising; they have the expertise to create good rules, which is more than can be said for Congress (remember when the late Senator Ted Stevens (RIP), at the time in charge of regulating the internet, described it as “a series of tubes”?). And yet these individuals are likely to come from major ’net players and could be beholden to their corporate interests, with little accountability. Say what one will about the FCC, but at the end of the day it answers to us. Independent committees? Maybe not so much.
“Prioritization of internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted,” says the proposal (italics mine), in the statement that most troubles watchdogs. Those who lobby for net neutrality argue specifically against prioritization of internet traffic, saying that if companies are allowed to prioritize traffic at their discretion, they will use it purely for profit, charging higher for better and specialized internet access. Net neutrality is directly opposed to this “tiered” approach to the internet.
The same section of the agreement suggests a category of “additional or differentiated” services, a term left vague, but one that could essentially be used to create a second tier of internet service. Ironically, as Lasar points out, Google itself has previously argued against this idea: “If a last-mile broadband provider dedicates only a small slice of its broadband capacity to the open Internet while reserving the vast majority of the network’s capacity for proprietary ‘specialized’ services, the public interest would be compromised.”
Finally, the agreement includes a glaring exception for wireless broadband, exempting it from all but the transparency requirements. Wireless internet is fast becoming the go-to way to access the internet. It’s also already the most non-neutral form of internet access, with frequent bandwidth limitations. If any form of network access needs regulation, it’s wireless.
What happens now is uncertain. Google and Verizon have adopted the proposal as statements of their own policy from here on out, and they’re requesting the FCC turn it into law. Whether or not it does, the two companies will likely do everything they can to influence other major internet firms to adopt similar policies and collaborate in Google and Verizon’s version of self-regulation.
And why do Google and Verizon care so much in the first place? Money. The vast majority of Google’s profits come from online advertising revenue, giving them a vested interest in how the internet is accessed. And Verizon is a major ISP, providing internet to more than 92 million people.
Google is famous for its informal corporate motto, “Don’t be evil,” an acknowledgment of the self-serving behavior of many corporations. But with policy suggestions like this, how well they ascribe to their own motto is increasingly coming into question.
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