Google-Verizon net neutrality plan raises more questions than it answers

Google-Verizon Policy outline leaves many blanks to be filled

Verizon and Google intended to clear up their positions on network neutrality, but their joint conference call ended up raising a host of questions.

The current state of net neutrality is… who knows?

The two companies Monday issued a joint framework proposal that they said was designed to protect an open Internet where "users should choose what content, applications, or devices they use." But when you look at the framework itself, the two companies have left a lot of the policy details wide open.

For instance, the proposed regulations begin by stating that Internet service providers will be barred from "engaging in undue discrimination against any lawful Internet content, application, or service in a manner that causes meaningful harm to competition or to users." This all sounds fairly straightforward until you continue reading the proposal.

Further down in the framework, the companies state that ISPs may also offer "any additional or differentiated services" that "could make use of… Internet content" and could also engage in traffic prioritization. When asked to elaborate on what these "additional services" would be on the companies’ joint conference call today, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg referred to FiOS, Verizon's fiber-optic television service. In other words, Verizon would have to operate under network neutrality principles over its standard wireline DSL and fiber Internet connections, but it could engage in traffic prioritization on its fiber-based television service.

Other examples of "differentiated services," say the companies, include "health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment or gaming options." This opens up the question, though of what happens if these additional services become so intertwined with the regular Internet that the two become indistinguishable. For instance, let’s say FiOS incorporates Hulu as an application of its fiber-based television services, thus letting users rewatch reruns of their favorite shows on demand. Won’t this be definition be giving favorable content to a preferred website at the expense of others?

The two companies do recognize this possibility, which is why they recommend the FCC "publish an annual report on the effect of these additional services and immediately report if it finds at any time that these services… have been devised or promoted in a manner designed to evade these consumer protections." Meaning, if FiOS were to incorporate Hulu into FiOS, the FCC could write up a report detailing how it was potentially harming open competition on the Internet.

All of which would be fine, except the companies’ proposal also leaves the FCC’s authority to regulate the industry up in the air as well. In the section on "regulatory authority," the companies say that the FCC would have "exclusive authority to oversee broadband Internet access services" but at the same time "would not be permitted to regulate broadband Internet access service." The companies also say that the FCC would "enforce the consumer protection and nondiscrimination requirements through case-by-case adjudication," although disputing parties would be "encouraged to use non-governmental dispute resolution processes" that "the FCC would be directed to give appropriate deference to." Needless to say, these proposals need quite a bit more clarification.

And finally, the companies' framework makes it clear that wireless services should be totally exempt from network neutrality rules, thus giving carriers free reign to manage wireless web traffic however they see fit. In lieu of following net neutrality rules on their wireless networks, carriers would instead have to "disclose accurate and relevant information in plain language about the characteristics and capabilities of their offerings." So for instance, if a wireless carrier did not allow peer-to-peer applications to run over their wireless networks, they would be required to tell consumers this at the outset so they know precisely what types of service quality they can expect over the wireless network.

That the companies would want to exempt wireless Internet services from net neutrality rules is no surprise since wireless carriers such as Verizon and AT&T have long argued that they needed more discretion to ensure quality of service over wireless networks than they’ve needed to ensure quality of service over wireline networks. But what happens in five years, say, when wireless services have advanced to the point and have become fast enough where they become the default Internet service, much as cellular phones are today used for default voice services?

Verizon and Google say that the U.S. Government Accountability Office will need to monitor this situation and "report to Congress annually on the continued development and robustness of wireless broadband Internet access services." However, they propose no remedies for enforcing net neutrality rules if wireless networks do indeed become the most common way of accessing the Internet.

In short, what Google and Verizon have done is to give a very broad outline of principles without filling in key details. How these key details get filled in -- from what constitutes "additional" Internet services to the scope of the FCC's authority to the enforcement of consumer protections on wireless networks -- will determine whether the Internet remains as "open" as Verizon and Google say they want.

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