Net neutrality and the Google-Verizon compromise

The two giants -- and now partners -- were once on opposite sides of the "net neutrality" debate. Their compromise plan has some worthy elements that Congress -- and not the FCC -- must weigh carefully in order to not ruin the Internet.

It would be naive to say that Google and Verizon had only the public interest in mind when they offered a compromise solution Monday to the thorny impasse of “network neutrality” on the Internet.

But it is the public that must ultimately decide the worth of their proposed governance of the Web.

At stake is the future of a complex and evolving medium that has radically transformed the way both individuals and businesses communicate. And the most radical transformations may lie ahead as the mobile Web, symbolized today by smart phones and tablets such as the iPad, becomes more prevalent and powerful.

Ideally, it will be primarily up to Congress and not the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to eventually sort out whether – or if – regulation of Internet carriers – either wireless or wire line – is needed to prevent one of them from controlling the content that users can access. Lawmakers should carefully study the Google-Verizon compromise to see if it balances the competing interests on the Internet.

Players on all sides of the net neutrality debate say they are the guardians of an “open” Internet, the same one that has fostered the incredible growth of companies like Google. The question is whether today’s corporate players should be left largely alone to self-regulate, figuring that they won’t kill the Golden Goose.

The Google-Verizon “legislative framework” is aimed at ensuring an open Internet, free of discrimination between one packet of data and another, keeping a blind eye as to the content, wherever created, and treating all traffic equally.

But the framework also contains two features that trouble many Silicon Valley start-ups and public-interest lobbyists.

First, it allows for a second layer of vaguely defined digital services in the future, a sort of gated Internet. These digital entities would have to be substantially different from services being offered now, such as 3-D video or medical monitoring, both heavy users of bandwidth.

Critics call this a first step toward a two-tiered Internet, creating a pay-to-enter private tier of premium services and a public Internet for those who can’t afford it. Might carriers like Verizon concentrate on delivering service to their premium customers and leave the Internet as we know it as a dusty relic that receives little attention or maintenance?

Google claims it plans to compete only on the open “public Internet,” including keeping its YouTube video service there. That provides some assurance for now, though company policy could change in the future.

The proposals also only apply to the “wired” Internet, through which most homes and businesses receive service today. The mobile wireless networks – companies such as Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless – would be left free to discriminate – say by offering faster speeds to websites that pay for the privilege, or slowing delivery from sites that compete with the companies’ own offerings.

Google-Verizon argue that the wireless arena is more competitive and is changing rapidly, and that too heavy a regulatory hand now could stifle innovation. (Both have significant business interests in how mobile develops.)

Google-Verizon do say that mobile companies should be transparent about their policies, letting users know if companies are limiting access to their network and how (say, keeping Skype or a competing video service off their airwaves). Presumably, users could switch carriers if the policy troubled them. Google-Verizon also recommended that the Government Accountability Office report yearly to Congress on how the mobile Internet arena is developing.

That all makes sense – for now, at least. If Congress feels compelled to act on the neutrality issue, despite very little evidence of carriers abusing it so far, then it would need to clearly lay out the rules for all Internet businesses – wired or wireless – so that they can understand the playing field they’re on.

If or how to regulate to keep the Internet open to innovation, and of maximum utility for all citizens, is a delicate business at best. The FCC has been working with companies to design regulations, but an April court decision that ruled against it has made unclear just what authority it holds.

Congress, on behalf of the public, could spell that out.

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