Earlier this week, Google and Verizon released a joint proposal for legislation to govern how Internet service providers manage online traffic. Though the companies touted their support of an open Internet, the proposal has come under criticism for providing loopholes that some say could allow Internet service providers–or large Web companies–to grab an unfair advantage by prioritizing certain Web content.
The proposal has ignited a firestorm of debate around “net neutrality,” the principle that Internet service providers should not be able to prioritize how content, such as streaming video or peer-to-peer content–or traffic from a particular customer–is delivered. The debate has also centered on how companies could, by extension, limit the types of applications users can access, or what devices they can connect to a network.
The issue came to a head in April this year, when a court ruling limited the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to regulate how carriers handle traffic. The FCC had sought to stop Comcast from throttling traffic from the file-sharing service BitTorrent on its network.
Google and Verizon’s new proposal calls for the FCC to investigate claims of unfair treatment, and for a standards-setting body to outline the difference between actions that must be taken to reasonably manage network traffic and actions that stack the deck in favor of a particular party.
Both companies say that the proposal works in favor of an open Internet. Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in a press conference that the legislation “would establish a new and enforceable prohibition against discrimination for wireline and broadband Internet services, specifically, no discrimination against or prioritizing of lawful Internet content apps or services in a way that harms users or competition, no blocking or degrading of Internet content and applications.”
Some experts say the proposal could help produce a real resolution on net neutrality.
“I would hope that the Verizon-Google proposal breaks the logjam on network neutrality, by showing there is room for compromise,” says Kevin Werbach, an associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the technology consulting firm Supernova Group. “The proposal has problems, but it’s a real effort to find common ground between network operators and companies that innovate on top of the Internet.”
But two aspects of the document have watchdogs worried. One is a provision that would let broadband providers offer “additional, differentiated services,” that would be not be subject to the same rules as the open internet. These would possibly include “health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options.” The other is the absence of any rules regarding wireless Internet traffic. The proposal points to the “still-nascent nature of the wireless broadband marketplace” and suggests requiring carriers to be transparent to users about how they handle wireless traffic, but imposes no additional rules.
Experts have debated what these exceptions may mean and what the two companies are really proposing.