Monday, August 16, 2010

Google & Verizon: media misses the point again?

The media got itself into quite a state a couple of weeks ago, reporting on an imminent "deal" between Google and Verizon. This would "put some restrictions on the US carrier’s ability to block or degrade specific internet services, but still leave it free to charge more to give some services priority on its network", according to the FT (Google and Verizon eye web access deal). A subsequent article in the following day's FT (Net neutrality battle moves to endgame) suggested that the deal signalled "that the fight over net neutrality is about to move into its endgame in alignment of commercial interest between some of the biggest internet services, telecommunications and cable companies would lead to de facto standards on how the web is run".

At the same time the BBC reported that the FCC had halted its series of closed-door industry meetings on net neutrality, and the Independent also weighed in with the hyperbole, suggesting that the Internet had just "sold its soul", despite both Google's and Verizon's claims of a continued commitment to an open Internet:
"In what one internet freedom campaigner called a "doomsday scenario" that will change the Internet forever, the search engine pioneer is close to agreeing terms with the largest telecoms company in the US that would open the door to special "fast lanes" for favoured Internet traffic."
A commentary later in the same day's edition did at least acknowledge the complexity of the debate:
"...the principle of net neutrality prevents internet service providers charging the people using those networks to distribute their content. So the BBC's iPlayer service, fantastic though it is, eats network capacity in this country, yet the corporation makes no contribution to the cost of upgrading the network to cope. When BT tried to suggest it should do so last year, it was told where to go in pretty short order. These are difficult questions. Net neutrality is democratic and promotes competition, but it may compromise the development of the Internet in the years to come. At the very least, it may mean consumers pay more – if Internet service providers are prevented from making the distributors of content pay, you can expect them to turn to the receivers. Google, for its part, says it remains committed to an "open Internet". There is no reason to doubt that commitment, but one might argue that unless mechanisms are found to meet the costs of maintaining and improving online infrastructure, consumers may eventually find the internet closed for technical reasons."
Interestingly, the Independent later published a correction to the strapline on its front page, which had incorrectly asserted that Google was about to close a deal to buy preferential web access for its services. Google had made it clear that it had not had talks with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google traffic, a point which the Independent article itself actually went on to make! Perhaps the Independent published the correction at the request of Google's legal team?

Anyway, a posting a few days later on Google's Public Policy Blog clarified the nature of the discussions between the two companies. This (in my opinion anyway) refutes the more lurid claims made by the media, and suggests that they had, once again, put two and two together to make five:
"It is imperative that we find ways to protect the future openness of the Internet and encourage the rapid deployment of broadband. Verizon and Google are pleased to discuss the principled compromise our companies have developed over the last year concerning the thorny issue of “network neutrality"...Today our CEOs will announce a proposal that we hope will make a constructive contribution to the dialogue. Our joint proposal takes the form of a suggested legislative framework for consideration by lawmakers...We believe this policy framework properly empowers consumers and gives the FCC a role carefully tailored for the new world of broadband, while also allowing broadband providers the flexibility to manage their networks and provide new types of online services. Ultimately, we think this proposal provides the certainty that allows both web startups to bring their novel ideas to users, and broadband providers to invest in their networks."
Also encouraging that the proposal includes education as a potential beneficiary of this opportunity to innovate:
"...we want the broadband infrastructure to be a platform for innovation. Therefore, our proposal would allow broadband providers to offer additional, differentiated online services, in addition to the Internet access and video services (such as Verizon's FIOS TV) offered today. This means that broadband providers can work with other players to develop new services. It is too soon to predict how these new services will develop, but examples might include health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options."
Google and Verizon's two-page proposal is available here; these extracts on non-discrimination and network management address the various "end of the Internet/sky is falling" accusations particularly:
"In providing broadband Internet access service, a provider would be prohibited from engaging in undue discrimination against any lawful Internet content, application, or service in a manner that causes meaningful harm to competition or to users...Broadband Internet access service providers are permitted to engage in reasonable network management. Reasonable network management includes any technically sound practice: to reduce or mitigate the effects of congestion on its network; to ensure network security or integrity; to address traffic that is unwanted by or harmful to users, the provider’s network, or the Internet; to ensure service quality to a subscriber; to provide services or capabilities consistent with a consumer’s choices; that is consistent with the technical requirements, standards, or best practices adopted by an independent, widely-recognized Internet community governance initiative or standard-setting organization; to prioritize general classes or types of Internet traffic, based on latency; or otherwise to manage the daily operation of its network."
The proposal also suggests that providers should also be able to offer differentiated services, which "would have to be distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service, but could make use of or access Internet content, applications or services and could include traffic prioritization". The FCC would play a key regulatory role to ensure such new services did not threaten or evade the consumer protections set out earlier in the proposal. Consumer transparency is central to the proposal, echoing the thinking of the FCC, Ofcom and the European Commission.

Further coverage from the FT (Google deal splits industry over net neutrality) and the BBC focussed on opposition to the proposal from net neutrality campaigners and Facebook, Ebay, Skype and Amazon, while the BBC also reported on a demonstration against the proposal outside Google's California offices. A posting on Google's Official Blog a few days later attempts to address the inaccuracies and misconceptions in much of the media coverage to "separate fact from fiction". For me, this is the key extract:
"This is a policy proposal – not a business deal...Our two companies are proposing a legislative framework to the Congress for its consideration. We hope all stakeholders will weigh in and help shape the framework to move us all forward. We’re not so presumptuous to think that any two businesses could – or should – decide the future of this issue. We’re simply trying to offer a proposal to help resolve a debate which has largely stagnated after five years. It’s up to Congress, the FCC, other policymakers – and the American public – to take it from here." intention that seems to have eluded many commentators. But if you acknowledge this intent, I guess you lose your angle?

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