Google Responds to Allegations of Selling Out on Net Neutrality
Google Responds to Allegations of “Selling Out” on Net Neutrality
Google and Verizon’s recent joint policy proposal to the FCC has many critics questioning whether or not the search giant is living up to its motto of “Don’t be evil.” The controversy arises over Google’s perceived wavering in its support for “net neutrality.” Google, however, argues that it has made a compromise that amounts to an overall victory for proponents of net neutrality.
What is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality refers to the prohibition of discriminatory practices regarding access to Internet content. Concerns have arisen over whether or not an Internet service provider (ISP)—such as Verizon, Comcast or Time Warner—has the right to limit bandwidth or access to certain websites. For example, Comcast recently came under fire for “throttling” BitTorrent speeds such that the peer-to-peer file sharing protocol was rendered unusable to many Comcast subscribers. Net neutrality supporters fear that an ISP may extend such practices to giving preferential treatment to certain websites based on monetary business deals. For example, Comcast may be allowed to accept payment from Yahoo! in order to block its users from accessing Google, thereby forcing them to use a competing product. Net neutrality proponents argue that the ISP should not be allowed to play such a “gatekeeper” role in deciding how users access the Internet.
The Google-Verizon Proposal
Currently, there are no enforceable laws giving the FCC power to prohibit such discriminatory practices. The Google-Verizon joint proposal was a suggested legislative framework that is meant to serve as a starting point for a law that would essentially make net neutrality law. In the proposal, Google and Verizon made two key recommendations: to prohibit discriminatory practices that limit consumer access to Internet content and to impose transparency requirements for ISPs regarding if, how and why they regulate access to certain websites.
The Wireless Broadband Loophole
On its face, the Google-Verizon proposal seems highly in favor of net neutrality supporters. But there’s a critical loophole that has critics up in arms. The proposal recommends that “wireline” broadband providers (cable, DSL, etc.) and wireless broadband providers (i.e. 3G and 4G data networks used by smartphones and mobile broadband laptop devices) be treated differently. While Google-Verizon recommended that net neutrality be strictly enforced on wireline providers, they posited a “wait and see” approach to imposing similar regulations on wireless broadband, arguing that the wireless broadband market was materially different from the wired broadband industry.
In essence, this would give wireless network providers—such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Nextel—the power to block access to certain wireless applications. In a worst case scenario, Verizon—which has a deal with Google as an exclusive carrier of some of its flagship Android phones—may opt to block or limit access from Google’s search competitors, such as Yahoo!, Bing and Ask. Likewise, AT&T—which is currently the sole U.S. carrier for the Apple iPhone—may be motivated to give Apple applications preferential treatment over Microsoft web services.
Google’s perceived flipflopping on the issue of net neutrality—presumably to further its relations with Verizon Wireless—garnered it heavy criticism, including a sit-in protest outside its offices. While fielding the waves of criticism respectfully, Google has remained steadfast in its support of the Google-Verizon proposal and the wireless broadband loophole. Rather than seeing the proposal as one marked by concession, Google views it as a favorable compromise. Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington Telecom and Media Counsel, wrote on the Google Public Policy Blog: “We’re not saying this solution is perfect, but we believe that a proposal that locks in key enforceable protections for consumers is preferable to no protection at all.”
In this regard, Google has a point. There are no laws that protect consumers from discriminatory ISP practices and the consensus between Google—a longtime proponent of net neutrality—and Verizon—a perceived threat to net neutrality—is a momentous step forward. But the giving up of ground on Google’s part cuts deeply to those who have lobbied long and hard for an unadulterated net neutrality bill.
At any rate, sweeping reform of the broadband industry is not yet imminent—FCC commissioner released only a short statement commenting on the Google-Verizon proposal, indicating that he felt it had “many problems” and hinted that he believed the proposal didn’t give the FCC enough power. For now, this recent joint proposal between Google and Verizon represents only a shift in attitudes concerning the fate of the open Internet.
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