Here's a little something to keep in mind when it comes to the new Google-Verizon "deal" about the future of net neutrality, the principle that all Internet content should be equally available and at the same speed: It's a proposal. The Federal Communications Commission and Congress still have to weigh in on the matter. Just because they've punted thus far doesn't mean that they have to keep punting.
Let's back up for a moment. Google and Verizon's meeting of the minds spawned a document, released yesterday, called the "Verizon-Google Legislative Framework Proposal." (There's that word again.) What that document lays out is a pro-neutrality vision nearly entirely negated by its caveats. Three of them, taken together, create a hole so big that you call, well, pretty much drive the entire Internet through them.
The first is the one setting off all the alarm bells: an exemption from net-neutrality requirements for wireless Internet -- as in cellphone Internet connections, not Wi-Fi. The companies' argument is that that space is so unsettled that neutrality provisions should not apply. Of course Google knows as well as almost anybody that mobile is quickly becoming a predominant way for a great many people to connect to the Internet.
The other two caveats are big ones, too. The second exempts "differentiated" Internet services, meaning things separate from what we think of as traditional Internet traffic -- things like, say, a Google Doctor-on-Your-Cellphone product. You might have noticed that that sort of service is increasingly becoming where Google's business interests lie. The third is, well, boring, but crucial. The Verizon-Google agreement would dictate that the Federal Communications Commission -- in the best vision of the governing world, the peoples' inside rep on media matters -- would have "no rulemaking authority with respect to those provisions." Instead, the FCC would only have the power to slap neutrality violators on the wrists.
In other words, Google and Verizon want to kick the net-neutrality debate over to Congress, where they've spent many years and many dollars opening hearts and minds to their arguments. Taking their chances on the Hill is well within their rights, but the most glaring downside for them is the threat to Google's good-guy reputation. They're probably betting that most people aren't paying attention. They're probably right. Enough people probably assume that Congress and the FCC are quietly serving the public's interest in this crucial media fight -- and they still could. Just because Google and Verizon have hammered out an understanding doesn't mean that the FCC and Congress have to roll over and accept it.
-- Nancy Scola
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