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The end of net neutrality?

August 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Recently mega companies Google and Verizon came out with a joint proposal on how to regulate the internet. The ensuing shock waves have swept across the internet in a torrent of blog posts, tweets, and comments as the online community has debated the pros and cons of the proposal. Here is a breakdown of what exactly is going on.

Verizon is an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The phone company owns a large portion the wires that make up ┬áthe infrastructure of the internet. When the average user pays to get online, they will be using Verizon’s service, or another company like them. Now a good business strategy for a company like that might be to charge extra to specific websites in order to provide preferential (faster) service. However, every attempt at the “tiering” of the internet by ISPs has been met with fierce resistance from the FCC and various online content providers. If paying for faster service becomes the standard, then many of the smaller websites that allow for such diversity on the internet will cease to exist.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt

Google is not an ISP. Their business strategy has always relied on net neutrality and they have been one of the key voices in keeping the internet open. In 2006 Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt helped shout down a House of Representatives bill that could have divided up the internet between ISPs. Now though, many are calling this new proposal a business partnership between Google and Verizon. With it, Google can ensure that the websites of their choosing receive high-speed service, while their competitors suffer. Verizon gets a major ally in their fight to “tier” the internet. Google vehemently denies any such agreement, but the murmurs persist. That is why their joint proposal with Verizon has created such a tempest.

The joint proposal, seen here, essentially proposes to keep wireline-based internet the same as it ever was. ISPs will not be allowed to speed up or slow down many of the services that exist today, and it even offers greater protection to some parts of net neutrality. The idea that has the blogosphere and the FCC up in arms, is that the proposal suggests removing those restrictions from wireless internet connections. The idea is that wireless internet is where all the real innovation is happening on the net and government restrictions on these companies would slow the rate of progress in the name of an ideal that would not be affected anyway.

Preston Gralla, a blogger for Computer World disagrees. In one of his many posts on the subject, he writes,

“Many people believe that eventually the wireless Internet will carry more traffic than the wired Internet. Google itself has said it expects to get more revenue from the wireless-based searches than wired searches. Exempting the wireless internet from net neutrality means that eventually net neutrality will be all but dead.”

Since the proposal is just a series of suggestions, normally it would not carry a whole lot of weight. The FCC is the federal regulatory body in charge of the internet and they have regularly come down on the side of net neutrality. Even President Obama has spoken of his support for net neutrality. Much of the fear stems from a recent court case. The FCC attempted to reprimand Comcast when they slowed service to a specific website that offered large downloads. Comcast took the FCC all the way to the Federal Court of Appeals in April of this year, and won a potential landmark decision which severely hampered the FCC’s ability to legislate. According to the court, the FCC does not have the legal standing to force ISPs to keep net neutrality.

In an effort to stem the backlash Google and Verizon have launched their own PR campaign including a joint letter to the Wall Street Journal from Google and Verizon CEOs Schmidt and Ivan Seidenberg respectively, and numerous posts on Google’s public policy blog. The federal government has also begun to take action. Four congressman have written a letter to the FCC urging action. One of the congressman, Ed Markey (D-MA) was the sponsor the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009, an attempt to codify net neutrality as federal law.

As of this writing there have been no official steps taken, but the Google-Verizon proposal makes it clear that the private corporations will only wait so long. The chairman of the FCC, Julius Genachowski, has been meeting with a large group of internet service and content providers in an effort to find common ground since the court case went against them. The New York Times reported the group was close to releasing a draft compromise agreement, but now these negotiations have taken a back seat since the Google-Verizon talks went public however. It remains to be seen if the FCC can bring everyone back to the table.

Tonight the FCC is live streaming their hearing at 6pm.  Senator Al Franken will be there to discuss net neutrality and the Google-Verizon proposal. Click here to watch.