Google, Verizon Plan Could Create Internet Divide

On Monday Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg proposed a far-reaching plan designed to address all the concerns the varying stakeholders have with Net neutrality. Twenty-four hours later, it is clear that at least some of those stakeholders — particularly advocates for Net neutrality, a group Google once seemed to lead — are dismayed by the proposal.

Briefly, the plan outlines certain consumer protections: An ISP could not prevent users from accessing and receiving lawful content, running lawful applications, or connecting to their choice of device. ISPs would be prohibited from engaging in undue discrimination against such content even if it were provided by competitors. ISPs would be required to disclose their network management practices and other information about their services.

So far so good for Net neutrality advocates, which have pushed for some of these proposals themselves over the years.

It is the remaining part of Google and Verizon’s proposal that has them up in arms. For starters, the aforementioned provisions would apply only to Internet access delivered across wires. Wireless broadband, by contrast, would only require an ISP to be transparent — that is, to disclose its policies.

Most controversial of all is the feared creation of a so-called private Internet where providers could offer new services, perhaps focusing on healthcare monitoring, education, gaming and other forms of entertainment.

The Mobile Muddle

The plan is so full of loopholes, said Sherwin Siy, deputy legal director of Public Knowledge, that it’s hard to know where to begin.

“First of all, the definition of reasonable network management can be fudged,” Siy told the E-Commerce Times. “That has been an ongoing problem, and right there is a large loophole for ongoing discrimination.”

Also, it’s unclear why there is a distinction between wireless and wired Internet, he said. “There is one Internet — it doesn’t matter what device you use to access it. Drawing that distinction is very strange. Why would you allow discrimination on the Internet just because a person was accessing it via a smartphone?”

Such a division would not be fair to rural users, Siy observed, who often have no other way of accessing the Internet than through a wireless connection.

Separate treatment based on mobile access is what galls Jonathan Askin, associate professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School, even though he considers it promising to see two of the most powerful forces historically at odds on the Internet access issue try to strike a compromise that would split the difference.

The Verizon-Google “compromise” supposedly excepts mobile services because the mobile market is both too nascent and sufficiently competitive, Askin told the E-Commerce Times. However, mobile is precisely where these two behemoths are jointly resting their revenue futures.

Public vs. Private

The existence of a public and private Internet is the most problematic aspect of the proposal, Siy emphasized.

“There are a couple of ways this could play out badly,” he said. “What if the services they offer on the premium pipe crowds out the so-called public Internet? As more of these services are added, will that narrow the public bandwidth? They have said they don’t intend to narrow what exists — but right now, we already know we need more bandwidth. Will we be freezing in place the bandwidth we have today at the expense of being able to add premium services?”

Tiered Rates

At bottom, what Net neutrality advocates most fear is the introduction of tiered rates for Internet access, said Mike Judd, program manager of consumer communication services at Frost & Sullivan. “However, it has never been clear that tiered rates would be a bad thing for consumers.”

More to the point, there is a long way to go before this proposal would become law, Judd told the E-Commerce Times. Given that it is called a “legislative framework,” it appears aimed at Congress, not the FCC.

The proposal may spur the FCC to move faster than it would have otherwise, he suggested, especially if it perceives any threatened erosion of its authority.

In fairness, the proposal is just an outline, said Daniel Brenner, former lead attorney for the National Cable and Telecom Association and now a partner in the technology practice at law firm Hogan Lovells.

“It doesn’t establish where the FCC authority would be,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“I really think this proposal is just a starting point,” said telecom analyst Jeff Kagan.

“The FCC has tried to make this work between the two sides and didn’t get anywhere,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “Having Google and Verizon come together might be what does the trick.”

There will be more talks because of the proposal, Kagan predicted.

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