Is Anyone Being Evil Here? Google-Verizon Compromise Proposal Draws Criticism from Net Neutrality Advocates

August 17, 2016

Net Neutrality

Last week, the New York Times and other media outlets reported that Google and Verizon were in talks to form a deal that would fly in the face of net neutrality, suggesting that Google planned to pay Verizon to speed up delivery of YouTube videos. Both companies denied the reports.

On Monday, Google and Verizon held a press conference to discuss the actual content of their proposal. As outlined on Google's Public Policy Blog, it has seven key elements:

  1. Openness of wireline broadband Internet should be enforceable by the FCC.
  2. Any discriminatory practices against lawful content, applications or services, as well as prioritization of traffic, should be enforceably prohibited.
  3. Broadband providers should be transparent.
  4. The FCC should address complaints on a case-by-case basis and impose penalties of up to $2 million.
  5. Broadband providers may offer differentiated services that could cost more, but they must be transparent about their practices, must not use this as a basis to circumvent the rule, and must not interfere with continued development of regular Internet service.
  6. Wireless broadband would be exempt from most of the above, but would still have to be transparent with consumers.
  7. Everyone should have broadband access to the Internet.

In some ways this proposal is a compromise (though not, as some are claiming, a reversal) from Google's previous stance that the Internet should remain open at all costs – a compromise presumably based on the April ruling in favor of Comcast, determining that "regulators had limited power over Web traffic under current law." (According to the NYT, "The decision will allow Internet service companies to block or slow specific sites and charge video sites like YouTube to deliver their content faster to users.") As a Google spokesperson said, "we think locking in key enforceable protections for consumers is progress and preferable to no protection."

Though the proposed policy seems to call for the FCC to prevent such tactics, many net neutrality proponents find fault with the proposal. The points that people mainly take issue with are 4, 5, and 6, on the basis that:

  • $2 million is nothing to huge companies like Comcast and won't prevent abuse.
  • Wireless broadband should not be exempt. (As one commenter on Google's post said, "Some Open Internet Coalition. Apply your principals to wireline and let wireless become the new capitalist wild west. Shame on you Google.") However, some have argued that wireless networks are inherently different from wired and can't realistically be governed by the same rules.
  • These "differentiated services" will effectively do to the "free" Internet what cable did to broadcast TV, i.e., ruin it, forcing customers to enter a tiered pricing structure and making "free" services worthless. (Another: "What's to stop broadband providers from basically colluding to create a parallel 'private' Internet which would be completely exempt from the net neutrality rules?")

At the conference, Google responded to most concerns by saying the policy wouldn't allow it. Would investment move away from the public Internet? Not allowed. Google also claimed it would continue to conduct its own business on the public Internet, not the "other" Internet.

However, as Marshall Kirkpatrick noted, "Press cynicism runs deep, and questions about loopholes and dark hidden intentions are still being asked." Wired, for example, ran a piece called "Why Google Became A Carrier-Humping, Net Neutrality Surrender Monkey," claiming that Google is "fine with screwing the American public out of an open wireless net." The NYT ran a series of responses from voices active in the debate, such as Tim Wu and Gigi Sohn—most crying for better regulation of an open Internet, while commenters threw around words like "sell-out" and "boycott" and "evil." The tenor of the response is such that you'd think Google and Verizon had openly denounced net neutrality.

It's been a little hard for me to take all the critics seriously in part because so many of them interpret the proposal as saying the exact opposite of what it appears to say. It says that any prioritization or discrimination of traffic should be illegal; its detractors claim the proposal will open the doors for such prioritization. The proposal demands transparency; its detractors claim it allows corporations to finagle shady deals and exploit loopholes. I get lost trying to determine what's a legitimate concern and what's a kneejerk conspiracy theory.

Network neutrality is one of those issues where it's extremely difficult to get an unbiased look at the facts. This is because most of the information available isn't facts; it's political rhetoric mucked up with slant and propaganda. And the concept itself isn't even well-defined. I'm not kidding when I say I've had a much easier time reading casually about quantum mechanics than I've had trying to wrap my brain around the net neutrality debate. For a while I was fairly obsessed with the many worlds interpretation, aka MWI (enter at your own risk). I'm not claiming I understand all the math, but it's all paraphrasable, and the terms are well-defined. It's not all messy semantics.

For example, at the risk of seeming hopelessly or even willfully naive, here are a few things I don't really understand about the debate:

  • Everyone keeps talking about the free Internet (e.g., from Wired: "if Google’s and Verizon’s proposal goes through, we really would have two internets — one free, where Google pledges to stay, another paid.") What free Internet? The Internet isn't like the radio – you can't just tune in. You have to pay a service provider (and there are limited options in this regard).
  • People keep using the cable TV analogy – we don't want the Internet to go the way of cable TV. Sorry, I'm one of those dicks who doesn't watch TV, but why is this convincing? Are people really nostalgic for the days before we had cable? Did pre-cable television (TV neutrality) foster rapid innovation and make it easy for anyone to start the next big show (some of the main arguments for an open Internet)? Also, people do still watch the free networks, so it's not like the advent of cable was truly the downfall of free TV. There must be a better analogy than this.
  • People say the proposal would allow corporations like Comcast to threaten competition and screw users by prioritizing traffic. But according to the April court decision, they can already do that – failure to outline new legislation will allow other broadband providers to follow suit.

To be clear, I sincerely hope that the Internet remains as free and open as it ever was (and it would be great if fast broadband was available to everyone, as it is in many other developed countries). But, mired in legalese and business-speak as it is, I won't be making this my pet issue. I'll stick to MWI.

Here are a few more reactions to the proposal and Monday's conference:

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Have a great weekend!

Photo credit: JasonWalton

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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