Google-Verizon Proposal Rings Net Neutrality Alarms

Wayne Rash

During their press conference on Monday, August 9, Google and Verizon announced their much-anticipated net neutrality outline for what the two companies would like to see the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress adopt. Despite much gnashing of teeth and dire predictions that the proposal would mean the 'End of the Internet' or perhaps the 'End of net neutrality,' it actually doesn't do either.

What Google and Verizon actually proposed is that the current state of net neutrality as envisioned by the FCC be continued, but with legislation to back it up. Companies and carriers that violate net neutrality by offering paid prioritization, or by degrading some traffic at the expense of other traffic, could be required to stop those practices, and could be fined if they refused to do so.

However, the proposal does treat wireless and wire line communications differently. The traditional view of net neutrality would be enforced in the wired world. But for wireless communications, the implementation of net neutrality under the Google-Verizon proposal would be more limited. Saying in their statement that wireless innovation could be hampered by too many rules, the proposal would still keep open access requirements, but may limit some other rules. For example, it might allow paid prioritization to handsets because of the technology requirements of wireless networks. That part of the proposal does require that the Government Accountability Office produce a report to Congress annually on changes in the wireless landscape so that changes to any enabling legislation could be made to keep up with technology.

As a part of the announcement, Google and Verizon published their proposal on their respective public policy blogs. While these proposals are fairly dense, they seem to be an honest attempt to codify net neutrality so that network companies can't play favorites with traffic. AT&T, for example, couldn't exclude NetFlix in favor of its own movie channel, and it couldn't degrade the Netflix service, either. There are, however, some caveats. ISPs, including Verizon, could provide their own content for the benefit of their subscribers, so Verizon could continue providing its FiOS Television service.

The problem with the density of the proposal is that it's not clear to most readers exactly what's going on here. First they heard a lot of conflicting information last week, then they can see the proposals on the Internet, and they can read a lot of bloggers taking a wide variety of positions, not all of them rational. It's no wonder that a number of public interest groups are alarmed by this whole turn of events as I was told by a reporter from Pacifica Radio. If I were in their shoes, I'd be alarmed, too.

The problem is that the proposal makes a fair amount of sense if you listened to the news conference, but not so much if you didn't. Adding to the confusion is the fact that not everything written about this either before or since has been particularly accurate. So here are a few key things to remember:

Google and Verizon are proposing an open Internet with no type of paid prioritization.

Google and Verizon are proposing that networks should not be allowed to block or degrade any legal service, regardless of the provider.

The proposal includes enforcement capabilities for the FCC on a case-by-case basis, with significant penalties for violating net neutrality rules.

Wireless is being handled differently, according to the proposal, because of differences in the technology and the competitive environment.

There are a couple more things to remember:

This is only a proposal. There's currently no indication on the part of the FCC or anyone else that these proposed rules will be adopted.

Even if the rules (or some version of them) are adopted, there has to be a public hearing. The public interest groups will have the ability to make their concerns heard.

Right now, the single most important issue to remember is that this is only the first of what is sure to be a long list of ideas on how to handle net neutrality. It's important to be aware of these proposals when they emerge, and also to be aware of which ones might be getting traction. And then we need to hope that this time the FCC tries to do its work in a more transparent manner than the closed meetings it was having before this all broke open.

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