Lobbyists not public interest will settle ‘Net neutrality debate

Updated, 1:30 p.m.: Closed-door meetings between Verizon, Google, FCC and others only a warm-up act

There is much chatter this morning over news reports that have Google huddling with Verizon while a variety of other Internet players have been gathering separately to establish a framework for legislation that presumably would put this endless 'Net neutrality debate out of our misery.

That such talks are happening is interesting, but there's virtually no chance they will be determinative of a final outcome.

That's going to happen in the political realm, where lobbyists, arm-twisting and partisanship rule.

From a story in the Washington Post:

Thwarted in his campaign to set government control over consumer access to the Internet, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has been trying to salvage his efforts by negotiating directly with a handful of the biggest Web firms and network service providers.

His goal is for those firms to put aside their differences on how Internet service providers control content on their networks and agree on legislation that Genachowski can present to Congress.

But critics say that by handpicking Google, AT&T, Verizon and Skype for seven closed-door meetings that continue this week at the FCC, Genachowski could be determining the future of how consumers access the Web in a manner more favorable to those businesses.

The story goes on to quote industry watchers who express concern that these meetings are stacking the deck in favor the participants and at the expense of those not represented. ... Who could argue otherwise?

Meanwhile, there's an even more exclusive round of negotiations under way, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Verizon and Google may soon announce an agreement that the companies hope could be used as a model for legislation aimed at preventing telephone or cable companies from delaying or blocking Internet traffic.

The two companies have been negotiating with each other for months on a compromise on the thorny issue of so-called net neutrality-the principle that Internet providers such as phone or cable companies should not deliberately slow or block Internet sites or services.

By this point in the debate, even your garden variety legislator is able to recite the basics of what's at stake:

Internet service providers insist they need to manage their networks (control bandwidth hogs) and sell premium services in order to justify their enormous capital expenses and make money.

Content providers and other 'Net neutrality advocates argue that giving ISPs such latitude will mean only deep-pocketed corporate interests will be able to afford the good Internet while everyone else gets the crappy Internet -- and innovation won't happen on the crappy Internet.

If legislation actually does emerge from either or both of the secretive meetings being reported on today, the process that will follow is not difficult to foresee.  

Forty percent of lawmakers will instinctively line up with the carriers because that's the unfettered free-market side of the room and they know where to stand.

Forty percent will line up behind 'Net neutrality because the first group is already on the other side of the room.

And the remaining 20 percent will get to know every lobbyist in town.

Those will be the meetings that decide 'Net neutrality.

(Update: Google/Verizon talks seen as "nail in 'Net neutrality's coffin" ... "the end of the Internet as we know it" ... "could kill 'Net neutrality with government backing" ... And for the less certain: "Is Google About to Sell the Internet Down the River?" ... "Is Google Selling Out Net Neutrality?" ... and, "Did Net Neutrality Just Get Knifed in The Back?" ... We're also investigating reports that Eric Schmidt has drowned a puppy.)

(Update, 1:30 p.m.: Google denies sell-out charge via tweet: "@NYTimes is wrong. We've not had any convos with VZN about paying for carriage of our traffic. We remain committed to an open internet.")

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