Howls of outrage have greeted a report that Verizon and Google are discussing a framework for internet regulation. Politicians and regulators hope that a widely-accepted industry agreement will kill the net neutrality issue stone dead. Campaigners fear the same outcome. For where would that leave them?
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, talks between the two giants have been underway since June, and a deal is a long way off. Bloomberg says talks have been going on longer, and that a deal is closer than the WSJ suggests. One item of agreement is that additional legislation would not be imposed on mobile networks. In parallel, last weekend AT&T, Verizon, Google and Skype met to thrash out common ground with US telco regulator the FCC.
Should the two giants reach an agreement, it would leave the agit-prop groups which have used the net neutrality cause to swell their mailing lists and coffers in a strange position. A position not dissimilar to the Knights in Monty Python's Holy Grail, who were followed by servants banging coconut shells to convince the public that they were really riding horses. But the horse in this instance will have bolted.
Cue the howls of anguish.
“Two of the largest companies – Google and Verizon – have reportedly agreed to abandon consumer protections, filter content and limit choice and free speech [sic] on the mobile Internet," fumes Free Press president Josh Silver. "Such abuse of the open Internet would put to final rest the Google mandate to ‘do no evil’.”
Another "citizen's" outfit Public Knowledge expresses similar alarm
“The point of a network neutrality rule is to prevent big companies from dividing the Internet between them. We do not need rules to protect Google and Verizon, but we need a rule to protect the customers of Google and Verizon and the competitors of Google and Verizon," said co-founder Gigi Sohn.
For collectors, that's yet another definition of net neutrality to cut out and keep. There is an FTC to look at antitrust issues, of course. And that's always been the strongest argument against pre-emptive technical regulation - when it comes to competition issues, there are plenty of laws in place already. Google's Eric Schmidt helpfully reminded us of his definition of neutrality yesterday:
"People get confused about Net neutrality - I want to make sure that everybody understands what we mean about it. What we mean is that if you have one data type, like video, you don't discriminate against one person's video in favor of another. It's OK to discriminate across different types...There is general agreement with Verizon and Google on this issue," he told a conference.
The neutrality issue has been fading for some time. In June some 70 Congressmen of both parties objected to the FCC's idea of imposing circuit-switching regulation on the packet-switched internet. There will be even less appetite in Congress after November if the election results go as expected. It's a symbolic piece of legislation with little support beyond the Democratic "net roots".
With Google now peering directly with ISPs, the company effectively operates its own private internet, and bypasses the backbone used by the public internet. So "neutrality" issues barely affect Google itself any more. Startups attempting to deliver video content, which don't have the scale to make such arrangements, will be a permanent disadvantage. That suits both Google and Verizon, of course.
Which is why Google can now afford to cut FreePress and PublicKnowledge loose. Clippety-clop.
Both groups received funding from George Soros' Open Society Initiative. This is noteworthy not because it's an indication of some dark conspiracy, but because the OSI is full of well-meaning wonkish policy graduates, who don't have a clue how the internet works. ®