A net neutrality proposal from Google and Verizon smells fishy, like it might be a deal between two industry giants to keep out competition. In the words of the immortal Ricky Ricardo, they got some 'splainin to do.
The two companies announced a joint proposal on Monday that would divide the Internet into three networks: The public Internet, a private network for new, value-add services, and the wireless network. The proposal calls for net neutrality to be required on the public net, punishable by up to $2 million in fines, but leaves the private Internet -- whatever that is -- and wireless net alone.
As is always the case when big companies propose regulations, citzens should assume Google and Verizon are guilty before finding them innocent. Big companies often try to co-opt government to set up rules that allow them to divide the market among themselves while setting up barriers for new competitors.
I don't have any answers, but I do have a lot of questions:
What about wireless? With the proliferation of iPhones, iPads, and Android phones, wireless is looking much more important than wired connections this decade. What's to stop Google, Verizon, and other large established players from setting up their own gated communities in the nice new wireless neighborhood, relegating startups to the decrepit old ghettos of wired connectivity?
What are these new, innovative services which would go on the private Internet? What's to stop Internet companies from simply declaring all their latest new products, no matter how unoriginal they are in actuality, as being innovative services that should be exempted from the rules of Net Neutrality?
Did Google sell out its Net Neutrality principles to keep a big partner happy? Verizon is a major carrier of Android phones. Both companies stand to win if they can lock competitors out of the wireless market.
Does the proposal provide for real enforcement? The proposal prohibits the FCC from creating new regulations, instead at best acting like a court, and at worst simply "rubber-stamping industry-crafted settlements," writes John Bergmayer at the Public Knowledge blog.
"In other words, the FCC would act as a show pony, whose authority in issues of enforcement would be superseded by groups created and run by the telecom industry," writes Karl Bode at DSLReports.com. Big, established companies with deep pockets would be able to buy the law they want, startups without funding to pay battalions of lawyers would lose out.
Unfortunately, this is not an issue were we can simply walk away and say that the government should keep out and let the free market decide. In the broadband market, there is no free market. Consumers and businesses have a choice between only a few providers, with huge economic and legal barriers to competition. Broadband providers enjoy the powers of eminent domain to build lines across otherwise private lands. And of course the Internet was built using publicly funded research. Internet companies aren't truly private, they are custodians of public resources, and it's up to citizens to make sure these companies use the resources wisely. Government regulation shouldn't stifle the free market, but it's needed to preserve the free market.
Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.