This week’s joint statement from Google Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. means the Internet is finally growing up. Damn it.
On its face, the proposal from the two companies over so-called net neutrality rules is just a declaration of principles they hope will influence future government policy making.
The truth is, it represents a massive defection by Google from the cause of assuring a level playing field for providers of online content and services -- a cause that has been accepted as an article of faith from the Net’s earliest days, and one of the keys to its explosive growth. And it will lead to an Internet that is more stultifying for businesses and consumers.
The Google-Verizon proposal pays lip service to the notion of net neutrality -- the idea that service providers must treat all information traveling over their pipes the same way, rather than cutting side deals to favor some bits over others.
There should be “a presumption against prioritization of Internet traffic -- including paid prioritization,” said the joint statement, which was issued by Google public-policy director Alan Davidson and Verizon’s top public-affairs executive, former Republican Congressman Tom Tauke.
In a conference call with journalists, Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt declared: “The next two people in a garage really do need an open Internet.”
But the Google-Verizon accord, if embraced by Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, would contain enough loopholes to render its high-sounding language mostly meaningless. To keep the broadband infrastructure a “platform for innovation,” providers would be free to create “additional, differentiated online services” beyond the Internet we know today. Mobile broadband, whose use is on a staggering upward trajectory, would be completely exempt.
The eventual, inevitable result would be not one Internet but many -- a multitiered environment in which those companies that could afford it would dwell in their own realm of fast-moving bits and wide-open bandwidth. And those that couldn’t pony up? Look for them on the legacy public Internet, which could become the online equivalent of cable television’s public-access channels.
In short, a lot of content creators may find themselves shunted from the information superhighway to the information frontage road. And that would be a real shame.
Raucous, Messy, Trashy
There has always been something profoundly democratic about the Net. Yes, it’s raucous, messy and trashy. But it has seldom been boring, and its openness has allowed entrepreneurs and innovators unmatched ways to find and connect with audiences. Think of the little ideas that have become ubiquitous seemingly overnight -- Facebook and Twitter, for example -- and ask yourself if they would have come so far so fast if they had to pay for play to get themselves in front of so many eyeballs.
In online journalism, a subject I know something about, sites such as the Huffington Post, Politico and Pro Publica are providing a valuable service by filling some of the void in the discourse left by the struggles of old-line news organizations. How likely is it that they would ever be in a position to find a place among the elite “additional, differentiated online services” contemplated by Google and Verizon?
The accord between the two companies has opened a chasm within the Internet community, dividing and weakening the cause Google claims to be defending. Wired.com’s Epicenter blog labeled the company a “surrender monkey,” and online activists immediately recognized the momentous nature of the declaration.
The agreement would “end the Internet as we know it,” declared Free Press, an advocacy group, on a site it launched called Save the Internet. “Google’s motto is supposed to be ‘Don’t Be Evil.’ But this deal puts it in bed with the devil.”
Those are harsh words to describe Verizon, which, after all, builds and operates networks and is entitled to monetize them, not only for the benefit of its shareholders, but also to generate the capital needed to expand them.
It, at least, is behaving just the way you would expect a carrier to behave: It sees opportunities it wants to seize, and knows well what can happen when networks don’t expand fast enough to meet the demands new services place on them. (It’s a lesson many an iPhone-wielding AT&T user grapples with daily.)
Harder to Swallow
Google’s position is harder to swallow. After all, it hasn’t been that long since Sergey Brin and Larry Page were just a couple of Stanford University students benefiting from the Web’s openness and nonexistent barriers to entry to take on then-mighty titans AOL and Yahoo. And talk about nutty ideas -- what about the one to start a service people could use to upload funny-cat videos and the occasional pirated TV show?
There may be an argument that the net-neutrality cause was already so weakened its defenders needed to cut the best compromise they could, lest they lose everything. Internet service providers have a well-earned reputation for political clout in Washington; meanwhile, a federal court ruled in April that regulators lacked authority to censure Comcast Corp. for slowing traffic from a file-sharing network.
The counter-argument is that if defenders of an open Internet acquiesce in allowing development of a tiered system and excluding wireless broadband from Net-neutrality rules, they’ll lose everything anyway -- just in slow motion.
Either way, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Google, having taken full advantage of the Net we’ve known for the last 15 or so years, is now helping pull the door shut behind it. A long time ago, I learned a valuable political lesson from my dad. “There are two parties in this country, but they aren’t the Democrats and the Republicans,” he said. “They’re the Ins and the Outs.” Google and Verizon just made clear they’re members of the same party.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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