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Larry Magid

Larry Magid

Posted: August 10, 2010 08:08 PM

The Net is full of criticisms of Google and Verizon's announcement on Monday when they released a joint policy proposal "for an open Internet" but as disturbing as the "Verizon-Google Legislative Framework Proposal" is, it's important to remember that it's a proposal, not a federal law. Sure, Verizon and Google are very powerful companies but, last time I checked, they were not able to make national policy -- at least not yet. It's up to Congress to make the big decisions about network neutrality and broadband and wireless policy and up to the Federal Communications Commission to help draft and carry out rules.

Less Than Fully Open Internet

As many bloggers and commentators pointed out, the proposal actually calls for a less than fully open Internet. The issue, which is generally referred to as "network neutrality" is whether broadband and wireless carriers such as Verizon (which is both broadband and wireless), Comcast and AT&T should have the ability to prioritize certain traffic on their networks over other traffic. Network neutrality proponents say they shouldn't, arguing that carriers should be agnostic about traffic and not be able to create "toll roads" that let certain data flow faster or more freely than other traffic. Opponents of network neutrality, which typically include broadband carriers, argue that such restrictions would inhibit investment in infrastructure because carriers would not be free to fully exploit the networks they build-out. They further argue that there are legitimate reasons to discriminate between some network traffic such as prioritizing telemedicine or educational videos over the ability to watch dancing cats on YouTube.

It's no surprise that Verizon would want to put limits on net neutrality, but what disappointed many people about Monday's proposal was that Google had been a staunch advocate of network neutrality and it appeared to many as if Google had sold out to Verizon and other carriers.

To its credit the statement did say that providers "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" and it called for the requirement for broadband Internet access providers to "disclose accurate and relevant information in plain language about the characteristics and capabilities of their offerings, their broadband network management, and other practices necessary for consumers and other users to make informed choices."

But the statement also carved out some exceptions big enough to put a 1980's vintage cell phone through. These include a vague statement that could exempt "additional online services" and a provision that would totally exempt wireless broadband which, by most accounts, is growing a lot faster than fixed broadband and is likely to be the dominant way most people access content in the future.

For example, the statement said that a provider that offers a broadband Internet access "could offer any other additional or differentiated services." It went on to say that "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."

But the proposal didn't give much detail as to the meaning of "Additional Online Services." I have no problem with that if what they are talking about is companies like Comcast or Verizon delivering cable (or digital) and Internet through the same wire as they now do with Comcast's cable service and Verizon's FIOS service. But I'm not sure that Google and Verizon are limiting it to that. They could just as easily be talking about new broadband services or perhaps just renaming existing services. For example, there are many streaming video services on the Internet. Could the agreement allow for a company to re-package and rename an existing service and then prioritize it as an "additional online service?" And what about voice over the Internet or video calling? Right now, it's just another data type that flows through the same pipes as all other data, but could a communications company decide to give priority to its own voice or video conferencing service? They could certainly make a compelling argument for it, claiming that it's in their customer's best interest, but it wouldn't be a neutral thing to do.

What concerns me most is the paragraph about wireless broadband which states "because of the unique technical and operational characteristics of wireless networks, and the competitive and still-developing nature of wireless broadband services, only the transparency principle would apply to wireless broadband at this time," which is their way of saying that they are completely exempting the fastest growing segment of the broadband market. This is a very significant exception not only because Verizon happens to be the nation's largest mobile carrier but also because Google, through its Android mobile phone operating system, is now a major player in the mobile business as well.

Send Congress Some Traffic of Your Own

So, if you happen to have a Verizon phone or Verizon broadband service, use it to call or write your representative. And if you have a Gmail account, use it to send them email. For the time being at least, your message should get through just fine.

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