The Google-Verizon Proposal Explained (And What It Could Mean For You) : The Record Google, Verizon, the 'open' internet and the future of creativity online.
NPR logo The Google-Verizon Proposal Explained (And What It Could Mean For You)

The Google-Verizon Proposal Explained (And What It Could Mean For You)

Google and Verizon's joint statement about the companies' proposal was written by Alan Davidson, Google's director of public policy, and Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive VP of public affairs. hide caption

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Google and Verizon's joint statement about the companies' proposal was written by Alan Davidson, Google's director of public policy, and Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive VP of public affairs.

Protesters converged on Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., today to voice their concern over a joint proposal the company announced Monday with Verizon. Before the announcement had even been made, a coalition of public interest groups including Free Press and Civic Action delivered petitions signed by more than 300,000 people to Google's Washington, D.C., office urging the company to stay true to its "don't be evil" motto.

What's everyone so upset about? The "joint policy proposal for an open internet" is intended as a "suggested legislative framework for consideration by lawmakers," in the words of a joint statement posted on the Google Public Policy blog by Alan Davidson, Google's director of public policy, and Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive VP of public affairs. Given the heft of the two companies, it will be considered. And what it proposes is troubling -- as much for what it doesn't say as what it does. And it does not seem to bode well for musicians, artists, and creative types in general.

Right now, the Internet is -- to use the over-used but perfectly descriptive sports analogy -- a level playing field. Google is the same as experimental duo The Books when it comes to ease of online access. No company gets a faster lane; no user has to pay a toll. That's important for independent musicians and artists of all types. It means that someone interested in Argentine guitar music can find Quique Sinesi's personal website as easily as they can order Avatar from Amazon.

Google and Verizon propose to change that.

The proposal starts encouragingly. The two companies assert their support for "the FCC's current wireline [that refers to your desktop computer "wired" to your modem -- as opposed to your smart phone, which is wire-less] broadband openness principles, which ensure that consumers have access to all legal content on the Internet, and can use what applications, services, and devices they choose ... Our proposal would now make those principles fully enforceable at the FCC [that's the Federal Communications Commission]."

Two things to note here that we'll come back to: the reference to "wireline" and the phrase, "at the FCC."

This means that they support that level playing field (that's called net neutrality) -- sort of.

Onward. The second of the proposal's "seven key elements" advocates an "enforceable prohibition against discriminatory practices." In this case, that means your "wireline" broadband provider cannot block or slow lawful content or provide preferential treatment to some content over other content. That's the "open" in open Internet.

In addition, the proposal stipulates that there would be no "prioritization of Internet traffic -- including paid prioritization ... wireline [there's that word again] broadband providers ... could not favor particular Internet traffic over other traffic." This seems to be a direct response to the rumors circulating before Monday's announcement that Google and Verizon had struck a deal through which Google would pay Verizon to get Google's content to users at a higher speed. During a teleconference Monday, Google CEO Eric Schmidt emphatically denied any such deal had been reached. Seems good so far.

"Key element" three basically says, "If we mess with your traffic, we have to tell you." This is called "transparency." In other words, if your ISP's pipes can't handle all of the video that's being streamed and downloaded, it has to let you know that that doing web research for the term paper you're working on at home is going to go a lot slower. This is called "reasonable network management." Transparency would also be enforceable -- on both wireline and wireless.

Are you sensing a "but" coming?

"But" Number One comes in "key element" four, which "spells out the FCC's role and authority in the broadband space." In a nutshell, the FCC would enforce "these openness policies on a case-by-case basis, using a complaint driven process." But the FCC "would have no rule-making authority with respect to those provisions." Here's the kicker: "The FCC would be directed to give appropriate deference to decision or advisory opinions of ... independent, widely-recognized Internet community governance initiatives." Translation: The government body responsible for protecting Internet consumers would be prohibited from making its own rules and would instead "be directed" to rely on the advice of the very people it's supposed to be regulating. That's the "at the FCC" we mentioned earlier -- as opposed to "by the FCC."

The big "buts" come in parts five and six. The proposal "recognizes" that "wireless broadband is different from the traditional wireline world." It's newer. It's changing rapidly. So none of the proposal's recommendations would apply to wireless except transparency. Isn't wireless the direction in which all of the innovation is moving? Does that mean that consumers will only be protected on the platform that will be all but abandoned within a decade?

That brings us to our last point, the really big "but" -- the two-tiered Internet, or, the "old" Internet and the "new" Internet. The Google-Verizon proposal "would allow broadband providers to offer additional, differentiated online services." While ISPs would be forbidden to give preferential treatment to specific content for, say, a fee on the "old Internet," "differentiated online services" are a different ball game. Translation: Separate high speed pipes where those who can afford it will pay to play.

Think of it like cable: I create an exciting new channel devoted to reality shows (dance contests, singing contests, skateboarding contests, eating contests). I approach a mega cable provider and pay it to carry my channel on its wires. The cable company turns around and charges its subscribers extra for my hot new "premium" channel. It's a win/win! For the cable company.

Same goes for Verizon. A content provider pays to be a "differentiated online service" and subscribers pay extra for the cool new content.

Some have rightly pointed out that the way the Internet currently works at its most basic packet level -- open, available to all, anywhere -- doesn't really make these differentiated thingys possible. But just suppose.

Where does that leave all of us who can't pay? The independent musician or composer who's creating fantastic new sounds? She or he can launch a website on the "old," open, level-playing-field Internet and hope somebody notices. Just like now. Only now, everyone's the same -- no-one's "special." Or the startup with a great new idea but no dough. If you were really "special" you'd be "differentiated." Would Facebook (which has come out against the Google-Verizon proposal) or MySpace or Twitter (don't laugh) have been possible on the "new" Internet?

A lot of people have said this debate is all about network neutrality -- the principal that all legal content, applications and users are treated equally online. I'm afraid it's not. It's about money. And money always finds a way.