You’ve got to hand it to Google and Verizon. Just as the FCC abandons its own efforts to bring together major providers of broadband, wireless and content providers to discuss net neutrality guidelines, and after constant denials that the two were in talks, they put forth a set of proposed guidelines that will likely drive the conversation and the future of the Internet. So why aren’t more people listening?
It’s a good question, especially since the proposals, in the absence of any political will by the FCC to push back against the industry, will likely find their way into law. Here’s what the two communications giants propose:
The Creation of a Public and a Private Internet
First and foremost the joint policy agreement makes a distinction between the Internet consumers access on their computers and the Internet they access of a smart phone, PDA, or other mobile device. Traditional Internet is considered “wireline” while mobile is “wireless”. This becomes an important distinction. Wireline is considered “public” Internet and wireless, “private”.
For wireline broadband the companies call for a full commitment to Internet openness and freedom. They called on the FCC to continue its policy of mandating that consumers have access to all legal content on the Internet and have the freedom to use whatever applications, services, and devices they choose. Furthermore, the companies called on the FCC to create a new and enforceable prohibition against discriminatory practices, meaning that for the first time wireline broadband providers would not be able to discriminate against or prioritize lawful Internet content, applications or services in any way that caused harm to users or competition. Sounds pretty good so far. But wait. It’s not.
For wireless broadband the two providers suggest extending the current FCC guidelines regarding transparency. Providers of this private Internet, however, would be free to discriminate on content meaning that consumers would likely face a paid prioritization of content for certain services, similar in some ways to the current tiered content model offered by traditional cable providers.
Future Services Do Not Fall Into the Public Space
With a two-tiered structure firmly established by these proposals, Verizon and Google go one step further and suggest that broadband providers be allowed to develop and offer differentiated online services free from the shackles of the public Internet. While the proposal does not specifically state this, the obvious effect of this “innovation” clause is to allow telecom the freedom to fund content that will not be subject to net neutrality rules. Such a proposal is technology’s version of separate but equal and will ultimately consolidate, not encourage, technological innovation and growth.
The Fox Guards The Henhouse
In a display of hubris usually reserved for the insurance or pharmaceutical industries, Verizon and Google go on to propose the limits of the FCC’s reach. Spun as a helpful resolution to the confusion surrounding the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband in the wake of the Comcast decision, Google and Verizon offer to spell out the FCC’s role and authority in the broadband space. Thanks, fellas. Really helpful.
So what do these two commercial giants suggest as the limits of FCC reach and authority? Why, that just depends. They’d like the FCC to enforce the openness policies on a case-by-case basis, using a complaint-driven process. The FCC is a creature of administrative law, charged by statute to regulate private industry. The fact that private industry is so comfortable as to suggest the scope of that authority, rather than Congress, speaks volumes to just how anti-regulation our culture has become.
Sen. Al Franken is absolutely correct when he said that net neutrality is the single most important First Amendment issue of our time. Technological innovation has made democratic participation more possible and more transparent, two developments that challenge the very power base of large, consolidated telecommunications companies. They cannot be allowed to set the terms of their own regulation, but without any demand from the public that is exactly what is going to happen. Sign the Care2 Petition and let the FCC know it is not up to Google and Verizon to dictate the future of the Internet.
photo courtesy of MysteryBee via Flickr