"This is not a deal," said Google CEO Eric Schmidt on a conference call Monday. "This is a joint policy announcement."
You could almost hear the air of anticipation whooshing out of the room.
That's because geeks, tech heads and open-Internet advocates had been on pins and needles all weekend, waiting for an announcement about a deal between Google and Verizon that, rumor had it, might change the workings of the Internet forever.
"We enjoy August drama," Schmidt joked. "But this is not our dramatic moment."
"It was no Mad Men," agrees Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of law and media studies at the University of Virginia.
The deal observers had expected would've let Google pay Verizon to get certain content online faster than its competitors could. Instead, Schmidt and his Verizon counterpart, Ivan Seidenberg, set forth a plan — a sort of statement of intent promising to maintain the Internet's openness and integrity.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is about preventing high-speed Internet providers from discriminating against certain sorts of providers or users of their network. For a hundred years, we've treated communications providers like sidewalks. The sidewalks can't choose between different walkers and have them travel at different speeds.
— Alan Greenblatt
Read more about net neutrality and past court decisions on the subject.
Earlier, on All Tech Considered:
Despite Schmidt's repeated assurances about transparency, Vaidhyanathan says he's a little suspicious of the deals these companies cut — and how they might try to influence policy in the future.
"Because fundamentally, Google doesn't work for you and me," he says, "and Verizon certainly doesn't work for you and me."
Still, the two companies presented their proposal Monday as a possible outline for public policy. Google's Eric Schmidt laid out a set of principles, including preserving an open Internet.
"Our proposal would establish a new and enforceable prohibition against discrimination in wireline Internet services."
He's talking about what's called net neutrality — making sure all applications and all users are treated equally, without the companies that sell us access blocking or slowing down content. But Schmidt specifically said wireline, not wireless — which would mean smart phones, for example. Unlike your desktop, those have restrictions on which applications you can use. That worries Vaidhyanathan.
"As we shift more and more of our use to these smaller mobile devices, we want to make sure the next YouTube and the next Skype can arise in the new environment."
A new environment that may not have the kind of net neutrality that fostered the Internet we're used to. But Adam Thierer takes a different point of view. He's the president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a think tank that looks at the Internet revolution from a free-market perspective. He wonders why the Internet should be different from any other industry.
"From airlines where you have first class vs. coach to hotels where you have nice rooms vs. smaller ones, it just means it's not as special as the premium offering."
But access to information is different from access to hotels, says Vaidhyanathan. He hopes the Federal Communications Commission takes that into account.
"I'm concerned [that] if the FCC uses this as a template, we will create a backwater on the traditional Internet and allow for a lot of top-down control in the very areas where use seems to be moving."