Monday, August 23, 2010

Google, Verizon & Net Neutrality: the debate rumbles on


The "deal" between Verizon and Google, as discussed in this post last week, is continuing to generate plenty of media interest and coverage.

Many commentators persist in referring to the two companies' announcement as a deal, despite it not being a deal at all, something which both Google ("this is a policy proposal") and Verizon ("to suggest this is a business arrangement between our companies is entirely incorrect") have been at pains to point out in a blog post and press release respectively.

With one of the worst headlines I've seen for a while ("a midsummer net scheme" indeed!), Daily Finance report on a secret series of discussions hosted by the Information Technology Industry Council ("the premier voice, advocate, and thought leader for the ICT industry"):
"The ITI is hosting an apparently hastily-convened series of discussions led by industry lobbyists on the future of national broadband policy, and specifically the red-hot issue of net neutrality...The meetings, first reported on by The Wall Street Journal, follow a failed attempt by the Federal Communications Commission to achieve a consensus between powerful Web and telecom companies, which foundered after Google and Verizon bailed on the agency's closed-door talks and struck their own deal...it appears they're being held at the request of Verizon, AT&T, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the giant industry trade group...One industry source speculated that AT&T and Verizon, having failed to sell the Google-Verizon deal to the FCC, let alone the public, are using these meetings as "a pep rally" to bolster support among other tech industry giants before pushing for legislation."
Further coverage by the BBC reported that the discussions involved representatives from "Verizon, AT&T, Skype, Microsoft, Cisco and the Communications Workers of America". AT&T had stated a few days previously that unrestricted access rules for wireless networks would hurt users more than help them, as reported by eWeek, a view broadly in keeping with Google's and Verizon's decision to keep wireless outside of their proposal. There is some interesting further analysis of this on PCMag.

Lots of political activity in the wake of the Google-Verizon announcement too: Colorlines report that "four Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to FCC Chair Julius Genachowski on Monday urging the commission to enact stricter net neutrality regulations than those proposed by Google and Verizon". From their letter:
"The recent proposal by Google and Verizon of an industry-centered net neutrality policy framework reinforces the need for resolution of the current open proceedings at the Commission to ensure the maintenance of an open Internet. Rather than expansion upon a proposal by two large communications companies with a vested financial interest in the outcome, formal FCC action is needed. The public interest is served by a free and open Internet that continues to be an indispensable platform for innovation, investment, entrepreneurship, and free speech."
Speaking at the "Future of the Internet" public hearing in Minneapolis, Democratic FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn were highly critical of Google and Verizon's proposal. From Commissioner Copps' speech:
"We must not ever allow the openness of the Internet to become just another pawn in the hands of powerful corporate interests...These very big, very powerful, very wealthy companies (Google & Verizon) pronounced to Capitol Hill, the FCC and the public that they have now agreed upon a policy framework that will work for the benefit of the American people. Of course it wasn’t developed with input from the American people, but it is, they assure us, for the American people. It’s “trust us,” one more time. Well, you don’t have to read very far in their joint handiwork to discover that, as much as these companies say they support an open Internet, this new framework isn’t what we’ve been waiting for, not by a long shot...The Verizon-Google Gaggle wants to build a world of private Internets that would vastly diminish the centrality of the Internet that you and I know. They want a tiered Internet. “Managed services” is what they call this. “Gated communities for the Affluent” is what I call them. So, for example, a special Verizon-Google or Comcast-NBC service could come to you extra quickly, with special quality of service or priority, and thereby decrease the amount of bandwidth left for the open Internet we know today.”
While Commissioner Copps clearly has consumers' interests at heart, I don't recall seeing anything in the Google-Verizon proposal to suggest that such new services would or should be provided at the expense of the open Internet? Quite the reverse in fact; they're described as "additional" services, and Google said on its Public Policy Blog that as such they should be monitored by the FCC "to make sure they don’t interfere with the continued development of Internet access services". Commissioner Clyburn wasn't quite as forthright in her speech, but she's clearly on the same page:
"...I am a firm believer in an open Internet, and I am also a proponent of the Commission enacting rules to ensure an open Internet. But let me be clear, when I say this, I am not talking about government regulating the content on the Internet. This is about consumers - rather than corporations - maintaining control over their online experience. This is about keeping the Internet open for new entrants, small companies, people of all backgrounds and levels of experience and financial resources, including people of color and women. So while I support the ongoing dialogue and consensus building among interested parties concerning the open Internet, I think that it is important for us to listen to all participants, including consumer groups, organizations representing minorities and women, and others whose futures are dependent on an open Internet."
Speaking on the same platform as Commissioners Copps and Clyburn, Senator Al Franken concurred:
""We can't let companies write the rules that they're supposed to follow, because if that happens those rules are going to be written only to protect corporations."
But I don't think there's anything that Verizon and Google would take issue with in any of the above? From Google's official blog:
"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."
Speaking on BroadbandGenie, Trefor Davies offers an alternative, pragmatic take on net neutrality in the light of the G-V announcement, based on current trends and economics:
"It certainly is not possible to run the internet without some kind of network intervention, at least not in any way that makes economic sense...Most ISPs’ networks hit capacity during the Football World Cup and Wimbledon Tennis. In an unmanaged network, this would have resulted in traffic congestion and a degradation of the customer experience. Fortunately by and large the customer experience was not affected this summer because the vast majority of consumers internet connections were being managed. This means prioritising time sensitive applications such as VoIP, video and gaming ahead of less time critical ones such as the oft vaunted Bit Torrent file sharing. To provide a network that can cope with unlimited traffic would not be something that consumers are unlikely to want to pay for."
Writing for MercuryNews, Larry Downes offers a similarly grounded analysis of the G-V proposal and praises the FCC for its approach:
"Admirably, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski recently told the Mercury News that he rejected "extremism on both sides," and called on all the parties to "put rhetoric and posturing aside and work together." In response, many stakeholders have been collaborating to find common ground and technical solutions...it's disappointing to hear some reject these developments as nefarious efforts to "dismantle" and "destroy" the Internet. Media reform groups have even accused Google of turning "evil." Yet the rules proposed by Google and Verizon are almost identical to those proposed in October by the FCC itself - a version many of those objecting the loudest today ardently support."
Similarly, in relation to the proposal's approach to wireless, Downes says that network management is not "evil" - he calls it a "technical necessity" and I agree. Transparency is the key here.

This is just what the debate needs I think - more considered analysis and discussion of this kind, based on facts, rather than opinion and received wisdom. While it's not the last word on the subject, the joint Google-Verizon proposal was never intended to be and there's much to praise in the document.

To dismiss such a proposal out of hand is short-sighted and won't build consensus on an important set of issues.

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