Uncommon Wisdom

Aug 12 2010   3:50PM GMT

A closer look at the Google/Verizon joint net neutrality proposal

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

Google and Verizon have issued a joint proposal on the regulation of net neutrality. The document aims, as it says, at promoting continued investment in broadband access, and it essentially seems to envision three classes of broadband services.

First, broadband wireline Internet service would be guaranteed non-discriminatory behavior and operators would be prohibited from interfering with lawful access (largely as defined by the FCC’s previous net neutrality principles) and mandated to be non-discriminatory in application of any “negative prioritization.” But it’s not clear that the prohibition would be absolute in “positive” terms; prioritization as de facto discrimination could be rebutted.

Second, wireless broadband services would be exempt from any neutrality application, except for the requirement that practices and policies must be transparent.

Third, “additional online services” that could be separate from or integrated with the Internet could be provided if they were “distinguishable in scope and purpose” from the Internet, but the impact of these on broadband Internet deployment would be monitored.

The network management practices permitted in the recommendation would include prioritization to achieve grades of service in traffic, and the comments there don’t address whether obtaining the prioritization is conditioned on payment or whether payment is precluded by the rules. We see nothing that specifically forbids the type of content-carriage deal that Google and Verizon are said to have made — the management non-discrimination is conditioned to exempt actions taken “to ensure service quality to a subscriber; to provide services or capabilities consistent with a consumer’s choices.”

In short, we don’t see this advancing the clarity of the process. In fact, we don’t think it adds anything much to the current net neutrality debate — as the title suggests, it’s probably a proposal requiring legislation rather than FCC action.

We’re of the view that this position is more likely to have negative implications for “the Internet” than not because, like other neutrality proposals, it forces the differentiation between Internet and “additional online services” as a means of evading any neutrality rules and imposing additional fees or charges. We’d prefer to see grades of service and additional features available for a fee within the Internet, since the notion of additional non-Internet services could open the way for creation of parallel structures that would escape regulation completely.

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