Is the Google-Verizon proposal really a threat to net neutrality?

The internet has been buzzing lately with talk of the threat to net neutrality posed by the proposal between Verizon and Google, which proposes a framework for regulations to ensure net neutrality, through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Although the policy is only a proposal and is not yet legally binding, it has caused uproar from net neutrality proponents. The criticism has largely been levelled at Google for selling out their cause.

Google has long been a staunch advocate of net neutrality and the policy proposal has called into question whether Google’s “Do no evil” motto has finally become nothing more than an ironic reminder that corporate interests trump everything else.

Net neutrality refers to the principle that proposes governments and ISPs should not be able to restrict content or to artificially slow down performance. In short “If two Internet users both pay for certain levels of access, then they should be able to connect to one another at that level of access without interference.” The main concern is the possibility of ISPs creating a tiered service that prioritises certain content over others. Taken to its logical conclusion, the companies with the deepest pockets could pay ISPs to have their content delivery prioritised. In effect this could make bandwidth intensive services (such as video streaming) dramatically slower on the lower tiers of service. It opens the door to corporate priority over the Internet, with the ISPs profiting through artificial scarcity.

So what does this proposal policy from Google and Verizon actually say? You can read it for yourself here. This is something I highly recommend, because there is a lot of opinion floating around the technology blogosphere about the proposal, and very little of it is anything more than opinion. In a public climate brimming with mistrust in corporates, you can forgive a suspicious reaction, but there is also a degree of hysteria (and a sense of personal betrayal) forming around what it means for the future of the web.

While the general tone of the proposal suggests adherence to the ideals of net neutrality, it qualifies these ideals with unclear terms. Such examples include the Non-Discrimination Requirement: “In providing broadband access service, a provider would be prohibited from engaging in undue discrimination against any lawful Internet content, application, or service in a manner that causes meaningful harm to competition or to users. Prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted.” The terms “undue”, and “meaningful harm” have many worried, as well as the phrase “but the presumption could be rebutted.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation have found the ill-defined term “lawful” troublesome, but the inclusion of this term will be a necessity in any FCC proposal.

The biggest surprise was the treatment of wireless broadband, or lack thereof. While the rest of the proposal governs restrictions to ensure net neutrality (albeit not nearly as doggedly as most hoped), wireless was claimed to be “competitive and still developing”, thus not being subject to restrictions at this time. At first glance, this says very little, but the classification of wireless as undeveloped has raised many eyebrows. How is wireless broadband deemed not developed enough for neutrality regulations? This leaves wireless content priority entirely in the hands of carriers. With the rolling out of 4G… this ‘loophole’ would allow the tiered internet so feared by neutrality proponents to exist, if only with wireless. The question remains as to why this is so overtly left out of the regulations. And the reasons given are not sufficient, or at least not well enough explained.

The next worrying factor is the “Additional Online Services”. Although wired broadband internet access without prioritisation is “guaranteed” through the non-discrimination requirement, this section allows providers to “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.”

This effectively grants ISPs permission to grant a tiered service, as long as they allow basic broadband. Unfortunately, there is no telling how this may negatively affect the base broadband connection. One can imagine an ISP offering video streaming packages, or gaming packages, both of which could offer prioritized traffic based on monetary incentives. The FCC would publish annual reports based on the effects of such services, and report if it is deemed to violate the net neutrality ideals. So there is a watchdog, but one without clearly defined power.

On close reading, the Google-Verizon Proposal leaves a bitter aftertaste in one’s mouth; a definite case of the devil being in the details. At the same time, it is by no means the end of the internet that some have claimed. It is a compromise, albeit one that is seated firmly in the camp of corporate interests. What seems clear is that Google will not back net neutrality at the expense of their own interests. Neither can any other company (although Facebook have taken this chance to publicly assert their support of an open internet). In the face of the reaction of net neutrality advocates, Google released a statement concerning the proposal designed to allay their fears. Ultimately it is up to the FCC to decide what to make of this deal.

Despite this being an American problem, a satisfactory resolution is critical for web entrepreneurs worldwide. The rest of us can only sit back and watch while this future is decided. We can only hope that the FCC’s regulations can maintain at least some of the equality and freedom that the web allows; where any start-up can, through originality and innovation, outperform the largest corporation,. Unfortunately we have no say in this battle. As this is the US internet landscape, their laws govern. What we can do is learn from their decision. South Africa might very well be facing similar choices in the coming decade. We have the chance to make better informed choices, and perhaps take advantage of the opportunities that affords us.



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