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

Google-Verizon Policy outline leaves many blanks to be filled

By Brad Reed, Network World
August 09, 2010 04:12 PM ET

Network World - 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.

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