Verizon & Google Propose a Legislative Path to Preserve the Open Internet

Well, everything our trusted news outlets told us last week was wrong.  Google and Verizon weren't cooking up a back-backroom scheme to undermine the open internet, nor were their talks about placing shipping containers full of Google servers in Verizon's parking lots, as a NYT op-ed suggested (I couldn't tell if it was serious speculation or a joke at the expense of the rumor-hungry tech media). 

Verizon & GoogleAs it turns out, their announcement, which is only the latest in a year of cooperation between the companies on this issue, is simply a suggested legislative framework for Congressional action on net neutrality-- and a very moderate one, at that. In March, Tom Tauke, EVP of Verizon, gave a speech here at NDN in which he made the argument that Congress needed to write new legislation, clarifying the government's role in regulating the internet. With their joint proposal, Google & Verizon have waded deeper into the specifics of how that legislation could be written.

The proposal offers clear support for the fundamental principles of net neutrality: ISPs would not be allowed to discriminate against any legal content, applications, or devices, and would be required to be transparent in their network management practices. The FCC would hold regulatory authority over the internet, enforcing consumer protection rules on a case-by-case basis, and would have the power to execute on their widely-lauded National Broadband Plan. The proposal does, however, have two important carve-outs, which I will address in turn:

Wireless. Mobile broadband is exempt from the proposed net neutrality rules, with the exception of the transparency requirement. The wireless market, they argue, is both more competitive and less mature than the wireline broadband market, and because of that, ought not be subject to new regulation. I think this is compelling.  The U.S. wireless market is legitimately competitive, unlike the wireline broadband market. I, for one, have but a single unsavory choice for broadband at my home-- and that's in a major city-- but everyone has at least four options of wireless carrier. And wireless truly is changing rapidly: 3G networks, rolled out in the middle part of the last decade, completely changed the way we use our mobile devices, and as 4G networks spread in the next year or two, I think we'll see yet another revolution. 

This blog is always keen to point out that the future of the internet lies on mobile devices, and eventually, the mobile internet will be virtually indistinguishable from wireline broadband. It's important that the Google & Verizon proposal doesn't rule out future regulation of the wireless space. In the proposal, the GAO is tasked with monitoring the wireless space to ensure it remains competitive and open, and consumer protection groups must remain vigilant as well. But for now, the market is working well, and consumers have options. While that persists, and while we see where wireless innovation leads us, I think it wise to avoid new regulation.

"Differentiated Services." This is a more complex carve-out, and one that raises more questions than it answers. Google & Verizon describe a network parallel to the "public internet" that could host such services as "health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options." The proposal explains 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."

Critics of the plan worry that, despite assurances, this parallel network would serve as a loophole for ISPs to prioritize paid content at the expense of the free, open, "public" internet. That is a legitimate concern, and your support for this element of the plan will probably track with your trust that ISPs will be transparent and supportive of the broad principles laid out in this proposal. But I think the more important question is whether there is a role for the kind of services they describe, and whether there is a need for those services to run on a network separate from the "public" internet.

Global Mobile is a big booster of the role the global network could play in healthcare, education, energy, and other sectors. Connection technology could play a huge part in reducing healthcare costs, as has already been demonstrated around the world. Access to the world's information will clearly be a crucial part of a 21st century education. And the smart grid-- a necessary facet of energy reform in this country-- will rely heavily on the broadband network. Is there a need to prioritize these types of information, and separate them from the "public" internet? Well, we don't know because we haven't tried.

The proposal puts the onus on the FCC to monitor these "differentiated services" and ensure that they're not being used as an end-run around net neutrality rules. As in the mobile space, careful vigilance will be necessary to ensure this carve-out isn't being exploited as a loophole. But provided these differentiated services don't hamper the internet as we know it, there is ample room for ISPs to experiment with new services over their network, and help healthcare, education, energy, and other sectors innovate their way into the networked 21st century.

Bottom line: This is a serious contribution to a debate that has not always been sensible and reasoned.  It's not the solution-- just a compromise suggested by two of many stakeholders-- and our policymakers will still have to make the final decisions. But I hope this proposal will provide critics on both sides a framework for more serious discussion.