Network Neutrality Misfire

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Here’s the most puzzling thing that Google and Verizon seemed to be saying in their “joint policy proposal for an open Internet“: The Internet should remain free and unfettered — except if it’s over a wireless network, in which case pretty much all bets are off and we’re gonna call the shots.

No wonder the reaction to the duo’s Network Neutrality doctrine issued Monday was a collective: Are you guys kidding?! Google and Verizon only have themselves to blame for presenting the distinction between wireline and wireless networks poorly (see Google, Verizon Generally Agree on Net Neutrality and Groups Petition Google To Call Off Verizon ‘Deal’).

Google and Verizon were in a rush to try to clear the air in the wake of devastating media coverage about their “secret” negotiations — including a New York Times article they claimed had inaccurately reported that the deal included pay-for-priority provision for Internet content (see Google: No Talks With Verizon About Paying For Priority Carriage).

But in their haste, the companies failed to adequately explain why wireless broadband (except for the “transparency requirement”) should be exempt from the nondiscrimination principles covering the wired Internet.

That provision “would open the door to outright blocking of applications, just as Comcast did with BitTorrent, or the blocking of content, just as Verizon did with text messages from NARAL Pro-choice America,” members of the SavetheInternet.com coalition wrote in a dispatch yesterday titled “Google-Verizon Pact Worse than Feared.”

Unfortunately, the Google-Verizon statement Monday didn’t broach the legitimate reason — comparatively limited bandwidth capacity — wireless networks should be treated differently. (Their only point was to claim wireless broadband should be exempt because it’s “more competitive” than wireline broadband. Maybe this means that Google is more willing to compromise now that Android is competitive with iPhone?) A more productive approach would have been for Google and Verizon to propose how applications should be differentiated on wireless networks, within a Network Neutrality framework that guarantees people can choose what content they access and which applications and devices they use.

In fact, Google and Verizon framed this discussion much better in their January 2010 joint submission to the FCC. In that document, they said, “Any oversight applicable to wireless broadband networks should focus on maximizing the ability of end users to experience the Internet in an open, robust, and seamless manner.”

To me, the rest of the Google-Verizon ideas were presented reasonably well. However, consumer watchdog groups decried their proposal that calls for giving ISPs the freedom to develop private network-based services such as “health care monitoring” or “new entertainment and gaming options.”

This stoked the predictable info-highway metaphors, with SavetheInternet.com whining that this would be like “creating new private fast lanes for the big players while leaving the little guy stranded on a winding dirt road.”

That’s nonsense. It’s like suggesting that chartered flights in the U.S. have caused service among passenger airlines to suffer. Creating different levels of service for different network services can only expand options for consumers — so long as the protections for baseline Internet services are maintained.

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