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.
“As many others have noted, the exclusion of wireless from all but the transparency requirements is a dreadful idea,” wrote Cindy Cohn, general counsel and legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a legislative analysis of the proposal. “Neutrality should be the rule for all services, and a distinction between wired and wireless not only defies reason, it also abandons the portion of the Internet that is currently most lacking in openness and neutrality.”
Some, however, agree that the wireless arena is problematic. Mung Chiang, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University who studies the modeling, analysis, and design of networks, says that wireless carriers truly are dealing with unique problems of competition and network congestion, a trend that is only increasing as more types of wireless devices come on the market. Chiang believes it’s not a good idea to introduce regulations before the technology has solidified.
While Werbach agrees that wireless is different, he argues that the legislation needs to include conditions that would trigger the FCC to intervene once the market has matured.
Experts have also expressed concern that allowing carriers to offer additional services could undermine the public Internet. Gigi B. Sohn, president and cofounder of the advocacy firm Public Knowledge, said in a statement: “While there would be no pay for priority on the best efforts Internet, there are almost no limits on so-called ‘managed services,’ other than that they would need to be ‘distinguishable in purpose and scope’ from the Internet.”
Public Knowledge and other groups have expressed concern that carriers would have carte blanche to create special offerings that could exclude those on the public Internet.
Chiang says, however, that the Internet is already “a loose confederation of subnetworks,” and he believes it may be necessary to have special provisions for certain types of traffic. For example, it may be sensible to treat imaging data relating to an important surgical procedure differently from other traffic. He sees “nothing intrinsically wrong” with carriers creating special-purpose services, though he acknowledges the potential for abuse–if, for example, carriers used this as a way to ban competitors’ products.
Werbach agrees, saying, “There’s no perfect way to differentiate ahead of time. For example, I haven’t heard much concern that Comcast’s XFinity Digital Voice phone service, which has millions of subscribers, has undermined the open Internet. That’s a managed service that expressly discriminates and excludes other providers.”
Provided these loopholes are monitored, some see the Google-Verizon proposal as a positive move. “While most of the reaction has focused on Google,” Werbach says, “the fact that Verizon accepted enforceable nondiscrimination obligations is a major step in the right direction. Those who argue that broadband providers won’t invest without freedom to discriminate will have a much harder time making that case after this proposal.”