Preston Gralla

Google-Verizon proposal opens door to the death of net neutrality

August 09, 2010 2:45 PM EDT
Google and Verizon issued a joint policy proposal for net neutrality today, and in the long run it spells potentially very bad news for the open Internet. The proposal has loopholes big enough to drive a truck through, notably exempting the wireless Internet from net neutrality, and allowing for new Internet services to bypass net neutrality requirements as well.

Google's Public Policy Blog explains the main goals of the proposal, and lays out its key elements. The goals are worthy ones, as are many of the specifics of the proposal, such as banning paid prioritization of Internet traffic, and transparency rules that would "give consumers clear, understandable information about the services [broadband providers] offer and their capabilities."

The exact policy proposal can be found here.

A reading of the proposal itself shows that it will help ensure that existing services on the wireline-based Internet will be protected by net neutrality. That means Web sites couldn't pay to have their own traffic prioritized over sites that can't pay, for example. And it means that broadband providers can't discriminate among different types of traffic.

That's certainly a good thing. But it's also very limited, and only applies to today's existing services. It doesn't take into account new Internet services that will eventually be developed. The proposal says a broadband provider:

could offer any other additional or differentiated services. Such other services 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.

Left unsaid is what those services might be. But in essence, it appears as if the companies are saying that net neutrality only applies to today's Internet services, not tomorrow's. It's as if in the Internet's pre-Web days a net neutrality agreement was reached about then-existing Internet services such as Gopher, Archie, and Veronica (no, I'm not making those names up --- they were popular services), but didn't cover services not yet invented. That would have meant that the Web, streaming media, and so on would not now be covered by net neutrality.

Now, the proposal is so vague about future services, that it's possible that it would cover popular Internet services in the future. But it's so vague that it needs to be spelled out more clearly.

There's a potentially bigger loophole --- broadband wireless. Google and Verizon have agreed that net neutrality doesn't apply to the wireless Internet. Here's what their proposal has to say:

Because of the unique technical and operational characteristics of wireless networks, and the competitive and still-developing nature of wireless broadband services, only the transparency principle would apply to wireless broadband at this time.
Many people believe that eventually the wireless Internet will carry more traffic than the wired Internet. Google itself has said that it expects to get more revenue from wireless-based searches than wired searches. Exempting the wireless Internet from net neutrality means that eventually net neutrality will be all but dead.

The Google-Verizon policy needs to be changed significantly, to cover new important Internet services that might be developed in the future, and extending it in some reasonable way to the wireless Internet.