A potential deal between Google and Verizon Communications on network neutrality may not carry much weight with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which has been trying to broker its own deal in recent weeks.
News reports from late Wednesday suggested Google and Verizon were close to their own deal on network management, but details were sketchy. A deal between the two companies could possibly serve as a model for net neutrality legislation in Congress or a compromise at the FCC, but there's no guarantee that the FCC, other providers or lawmakers would back a Google/Verizon deal.
Indeed, AT&T, with a larger broadband customer base than Verizon, said Thursday it continues to work with the FCC on a compromise. "AT&T is not a party to the purported agreement between Google and Verizon," Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, said in a statement. "We remain committed to trying to reach a consensus on this issue through the FCC process."
Proposed net neutrality rules would prohibit broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web traffic.
Verizon, in a statement, said it was committed to the FCC's negotiations. "We are optimistic this process will reach a consensus that can maintain an open Internet and the investment and innovation required to sustain it," the company said.
Seven consumer and digital rights groups, including Public Knowledge, Free Press and the Consumer Federation of America, voiced opposition to a private deal between Google and Verizon.
"It is unseemly and inappropriate for two giant companies to decide the future of the Internet and how Internet will work for millions of users," said the groups, which all back stronger net neutrality rules through the FCC or Congress. "This agreement cannot be enforced by any governmental agency and will provide no protection against the types of abuse we seen from large Internet Service Providers. The Internet belongs to all of us, not to Verizon and Google."
The FCC did not comment directly on the reports of a Google and Verizon deal. "The broad stakeholder discussions continue to actively include Google and Verizon," FCC spokeswoman Jen Howard said.
A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on talks between her company and Verizon, but she denied a New York Times report that said the two companies were negotiating a tiered service agreement that would give Google services faster network speeds than some competitors.
That story "is quite simply wrong," said Mistique Cano, manager of global communications and public affairs at Google. "We have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google traffic. We remain as committed as we always have been to an open Internet."
Supporters of stronger net neutrality rules were split on the potential impact of a private deal between Verizon and Google.
A compromise brokered by the FCC might supersede any deal between the two companies, but Verizon and Google's work might serve as a model for government action, said Art Brodsky, spokesman for Public Knowledge. "The danger is that the private deal becomes the template for legislation," he said.
Several members of Congress have called for new legislation on net neutrality, instead of the FCC acting on its own. It's unlikely that legislation would pass before November's elections, however.
The Media Access Project, another supporter of net neutrality rules, called on the FCC to stay focused on Chairman Julius Genachowski's proposal to create its own rules by reclassifying broadband as a common-carrier service, said Kamilla Kovacs, MAP's communications and development director.
Any FCC action on net neutrality would trump a private deal, she said. "If the commission reclassifies, those rules will apply to Verizon and other carriers as well," Kovacs said. "As such, we hope the FCC will not consider any compromise or weak interpretation of net neutrality present in the Google-Verizon deal as a benchmark for its own actions or future rulings for all other providers."
The news reports of the deal come as the FCC has hosted a series closed-door meetings with broadband providers and other interested groups in an attempt to hammer out a deal on net neutrality. The FCC began hosting the meetings in June, after Genachowski's proposal to create formal net neutrality rules ran into opposition from broadband providers and hundreds of members of Congress.
Some consumer and digital rights groups have protested the FCC meetings, saying they have been excluded from the meetings, as have small businesses and civil rights groups.
Three sources with knowledge of the negotiations at the FCC said Wednesday the parties were not close to an agreement, despite some press reports to the contrary.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantusG. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.