Google, Verizon and the Net Neutrality Debate

Contributing Editor

Arguments have raged across the web during the past week about the Verizon-Google Legislative
Framework Proposal (read the full document). Opinions range from “it’s great” to “this threatens the underlying foundation of the Internet” and “Google’s gone evil”.

This is my take. The proposal primarily affects US Internet users and, although I’m not a US citizen, the issues will almost certainly affect and/or influence other parts of the world. I do not claim to have unbiased opinions or legal expertise. You may agree or disagree; the discussions will continue for many months — probably years.

What is Net Neutrality?

In essence, net neutrality means all web traffic is treated equally. It does not matter whether the user is downloading a Wikipedia article, a YouTube video, a spam email, or an illegally copied MP3 — no data packet has priority over any another.

The Internet operates under this principal … to an extent. Individual ISPs may restrict your bandwidth or perhaps limit torrent downloads during busy periods. Mobile operators usually operate stricter controls to ensure networks remain responsive: they can — and will — block certain content.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had been negotiating with leading providers to outline a framework for the future regulation of US Internet services. This effort was recently abandoned.

What is the Google and Verizon proposal?

The Verizon-Google Legislative Framework Proposal is a response from both companies to the debate in Congress about the National Broadband Plan and the US Government’s role in the future of the Internet.

Google and Verizon are free to make any recommendations they choose. Both companies have an agenda and neither would make a statement that was not in their best interest. Congress can choose to accept, reject or ignore any proposal and the recommendations are not US legislation. Yet.

The key points are summarized below:

1. Non-discrimination against lawful Internet content
A broadband ISP would be prohibited from preventing user access to lawful content or services. The provider must disclose accurate information about their capabilities and network management. The FCC would be responsible for enforcing consumer protection and can impose fines of up to $2 million for companies violating the rules.

These proposals appear reasonable and received the least attention. However, non-discrimination is limited to “lawful” content without clarifying that term or identifying the policing authority. The flip-side of the proposal is that ISPs could block illegal content.

Laws differ from country to country. Even legal practices in one US state may be outlawed in another. Possible issues include:

  • Sectors such as the entertainment industry could argue that certain types of content breach copyright laws. This could include pirated material or works that mention or are influenced by another.
  • Companies could use legal precedents to block competitor services and gain an advantage.
  • Individuals or organizations could use privacy or other laws to block negative articles.

The proposal could hinder free speech and innovation. In addition, an ISP could be exempt from net neutrality principles if it can claim it’s upholding the law. Even a $2 million fine would be a negligible risk to most large carriers — especially if they can profit from prioritizing content.

Finally, it’s interesting to look back to January 2010 when Google threatened to quit China because its Government blocked content which it deemed illegal. How is this different?

2. Network management
ISPs are permitted to engage in reasonable network management to provide a reliable service, e.g. reduce congestion, ensure security, addresses harmful traffic, etc. Many have latched on to this issue as a direct attack on net neutrality but ISPs already engage in the practice. The proposal states they should be transparent and disclose all network management policies.

The most controversial element is Additional Online Services. In effect, ISPs would be free to offer alternative non-internet services which are “distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service”. These services can make use of the internet and prioritize traffic. The FCC would monitor the systems to ensure they do not threaten the meaningful availability of broadband Internet access.

Services such as health and gaming systems have been mentioned, but it’s difficult to evaluate the effect of alternative networks until they’re implemented. It’s unlikely we’ll see separate commercial networks for websites such as YouTube but it remains a possibility. Few people would want to use a fragmented Internet.

3. Exclusion for wireless
With the exception of service transparency, wireless networks are excused from legislation because of their “unique technical and operational characteristics”. This seems strange and many have speculated a conspiracy: Google could want Verizon to prioritize Android devices.

Wireless networks could become the predominant method of net access over the next few years. If that occurs, what is the point of these proposals? Again, there’s no definition of what constitutes a wireless network. Could a cable ISP put a router outside your house, claim they have a wireless network and avoid legislation?

Overall, I find it strange that Google and Verizon have stepped into the political debate. They may be key players but many of the proposals seem too vague to be workable. At worst, the companies appear to be advocating net neutrality exclusions and have been attacked accordingly. The biggest worry is that Congress will approve legislation without an appreciation of the underlying technical issues.

The debate has just begun.

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  • USPatriot

    Folks, welcome to the beginning of the NWO.

  • XLCowBoy

    I had a lengthy debate about this with a few friends, but to summarize, we basically agreed on a few things:

    One, additional services could be a good thing. Here are some of the points we saw:

    (Remember, the additional services have to be different from ACCESSING the internet, that’s the core word in the document. Which means it could be akin to providing extra stuff WHILE you’re connected).

    1) It could be a way to monetize content online through ISP’s paying the content provider a fee to display the content, much how cable works, or closer to home: similar to the curated iTunes store.

    Most of us saw this as a good thing, as monetizing your content online has always been difficult and risky, and if this can provide a way to make money, we will see a lot more investment in content creation (think interactive shows or live sports events streaming in HD by HBO).

    2) It could also be beneficial to most non-tech savvy users, as curated content (much like the iTunes store) can provide them access to safe, virus / malware-free content. (Again, this can be a good thing for providers, because legitimate digital product providers can get on this bandwagon and make money without having to spend on convincing people their product is safe.)

    3) Since additional services should not affect the core aspect of the internet (going online), then it should, in theory, not affect people’s current online habits.

    4) A few arguments came up about how it would create a two-tiered internet, and all the good stuff would be behind that pay-to-play wall, but isn’t that already happening now? A lot of online services, content, etc. are moving towards the subscription / pay wall route, and let’s be honest: we would all rather pay one monthly bill to access everything, rather than manage multiple subscriptions with different pay channels (PayPal, CC’s, etc.)

    Two, and this is where most of us agreed upon: that proposal was seriously open to interpretation. The whole “network management” sounded like a veiled weapon allowing ISP’s to effectively “discourage” any peer-to-peer or torrent software. While I’m firmly against piracy, giving ISP’s that kind of power might be a little dangerous – I might be downloading 10 videos of the TED website simultaneously – a perfectly legal thing to do – and the ISP would suddenly put me in the slow pot, in order to “mitigate” internet traffic.

    Anyhoo, I do think this discussion is far from over.

  • David

    How can ANYONE argue it is a good thing. It is yet another reason why Google is to big. The mobile broadband networks have already to much reach. Giving them anymore is a terrible idea. With the combination of facebook and google, it already feels like big brother is always watching. I am so saddened to see how the internet has turned into a corporate warehouse.

  • jim6917

    LOL, just ask your ISP for its deep packet inspection ways. They can be “The Man in the Middle” and censor and change content that you request via HTTP. We have no privacy on the web, The Powers That Be have always been able to spy on you. Your only defense for privacy is to encrypt packets before you send them. This way they cannot not understand the data without the key to access it. So, encrypt your communications on the web. Freedom of Intellect is always better for mankind then lazy spies that steal your intellectual right to privacy. The lazy entitlement class can kiss my working a$$.

  • Jeorge Peter

    Its far from over I think, people will be talking about this new issue and will we get better views on this as the debate goes on?

  • Sphamandla

    Google dominates and being the best search engine available to today know they see themselves of high presidence. i Agree another reason why Google is to big, after all they are the fastest growing company and with the new OS at hand which I’m waiting to see. So i think seeing the power they have on the net they figured if they say something everyone will lend an ear.