There was a time not long ago when it was easy to believe that Google was a different kind of company — one that considered the public good as well as the bottom line in making decisions. My, how a week changes things.
Google had once distinguished itself as one of the strongest corporate proponents of openness and freedom on the Internet. These characteristics are guarded by a principle called network neutrality, which basically means that Internet service providers can't slow down or speed up data that flows over their networks. But last week, the company turned its back on net neutrality — and the American public.
In practical terms, net neutrality prevents AT&T, which provides high-speed Internet service to millions, from making a deal with Hulu.com to make its videos load five times faster than Youtube's. It means that FoxNews.com couldn't make a deal with Comcast, another major Internet provider, to block progressive blogs critical of Fox such as JackandJillPolitics.com or Daily Kos. And Myspace couldn't cut a deal with Verizon to slow down Facebook's traffic so that consumers would choose Myspace instead.
In that way, net neutrality guarantees that the Internet remains an open platform for ideas and innovation, where anyone with a good idea and technical know-how can find success — just like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Google's founders.
Last Monday Google reversed its historic support for net neutrality, joining Verizon — an Internet provider that has been working to weaken or eliminate net neutrality — in announcing a policy proposal which, if adopted as law, would spell the end of the Internet as we know it.
There are tons of problems with this proposal for everyone. But as is often the case, poor people and people of color will get the worst of it. It would divide the Internet into a network-neutral "public Internet" and a much faster "private Internet," where broadband carriers could write the rules. But the devil is in the details — the public Internet's net neutrality protections are so weak that most Internet providers would be able to go around the rules frequently. The other major problem here is that the private Internet would come to choke the life out of the public Internet. As more of the companies and organizations that wanted to take advantage of cutting edge speed and services merely stopped producing content for the public Internet, the Internet would become a pay-to-play enterprise. As io9's Annalee Newitz put it:
"The public internet? Yeah, that's just for poor people. But guess what's going to remain on the public net, the place where you go when you don't have money? Certainly there will be educational resources like Wikipedia. But mostly it's going to be advertisement-saturated free content from major entertainment companies.... Put in brick-and-mortar terms: There won't be any produce markets on the public internet, but there will be plenty of liquor stores.
Another disturbing aspect of the Google-Verizon proposal is its so-called "wireless carveout" -- essentially saying that mobile Internet would not be subject to network neutrality rules. All the same reasons that net neutrality is important on regular wired networks apply to wireless networks, and it's important for all Americans. Wireless broadband is the future of the Internet, and the telecom companies want to kill neutrality there to lay the groundwork for a profit bonanza.
But it's also true that changing trends in Internet usage indicate that many of the harms of a non-neutral wireless Internet would disproportionately fall on communities of color. According to The New York Times,the percentage of African-Americans using mobile phones or other connected devices to share e-mail, exchange instant messages and access the Internet for information on an average day has more than doubled since late 2007, jumping to 29 percent, from 12 percent. By comparison, only 19 percent of Americans over all log on to the Internet on a mobile device on a typical day. And nearly half of all African-Americans and English-speaking Hispanics were using mobile devices to surf the Web and send e-mail messages, compared to just 28 percent of white Americans.
Perhaps worst of all, the Google-Verizon proposal would leave the web without meaningful protection from corporate abuses. If, under this framework, an Internet provider were caught violating one of the few rules left in place, their maximum fine would be $2 million. But as law professor Marvin Ammori notes, Verizon makes that much money in revenue every 10 minutes, and $10 million in profit every three hours. They would have little incentive to ever do the right thing so long as the benefits of their actions outweighed the cost, and in fact, their shareholders would come to demand it. As Ammori later says:
"If the punishment for bank robbery was $10, we'd have more bank robberies.... Verizon and Google have a duty to their shareholders to maximize profit. Their proposal essentially says that cheating on your taxes lets you keep the taxes, if you pay 5 bucks. Of course their shareholders will expect cheating; the law makes it profitable." This is what happens when corporations write the rules they are supposed to play by -- they win, and the public loses.
The good news is that this scheme isn't law yet, and the Federal Communications Commission still has the power to act for the public's best interest. But it first must revisit a Bush-era decision to deregulate broadband. By revisiting this decision and reclassifying broadband as a communication service, the FCC can do everything it needs to do to protect American consumers. And in fact, the Chair of the FCC, Julius Genachowski, announced his intentions to do this. But he has backed away from this plan under intense pressure from the telecommunications industry, choosing to try negotiating a deal with them instead.
That's why it's so important to speak out and demand immediate action to protect the Internet, and our future in this new digital century. When the banks wrote and enforced the rules on Wall Street, our financial system melted down. When BP and other oil giants wrote and enforced the rules for deep-sea drilling, the Gulf Coast suffered the worst oil spill in world history. It would be foolish to now entrust the Internet's future to the profiteers in the broadband industry and their new ally, Google. The FCC has all the tools it needs to protect our interests and ensure the Internet remains a vital engine of information exchange and innovation. Genachowski must act now, before Google and Verizon's bad idea becomes an even worse reality.