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Google, Verizon offer net neutrality proposal

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Google and Verizon have hammered out a joint proposal for the FCC and internet industry in the hopes of ending the roiling network neutrality debate.

It won't.

"Crafting a compromise proposal has not been an easy process, and we have certainly had our differences along the way," wrote Google director of public policy Alan Davidson and Verizon executive vice president of public affairs, policy, and communications Tom Tauke in a joint statement outlining the goals of the "suggested legislative framework."

"But what has kept us moving forward is our mutual interest in a healthy and growing Internet that can continue to be a laboratory for innovation," they continued.

Fine words from Mssrs. Davidson and Tauke, to be sure, but a close look at the proposal uncovers some troubling suggestions.

The two-page seven-point plan offers a bundle of carrots and sticks designed to allay fears of a multi-tiered internet in which some web content is more equal — and more costly — than others. And for today's internet, the proposal has arguable value. For the internet of the future, however, not so much.

To mollify those who object to a multi-tiered internet in which content providers can pay for preferred, prioritized service, Davidson and Tauke note that the proposal includes a "new nondiscrimination principle [that] includes a presumption against prioritization of internet traffic — including paid prioritization."

Plus: "In addition to not blocking or degrading of internet content and applications, wireline broadband providers also could not favor particular Internet traffic over other traffic. "

All well and good to net-neut supporters, as are other aspects of the plan that include a higher degree of service-quality transparency and clarification of the FCC's enforcement powers — including the ability to impose $2m fines on "bad actors".

However, slipped in at the tail end of the proposal's suggested strictures against prioritization is an unexplained escape clause: "Prioritization of internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted."

The framework doesn't specify what grounds such a rebuttal could claim, or what agency would referee such an argument. Presumably it would be the FCC — but as recent US history has shown, the Commission's choice of whether to prefer business interests or consumer protection is, to put it kindly, malleable.

Notice also that Davidson and Tauke specifically referred to "wireline broadband providers" — and there's a simple reason for that specificity: "We both recognize that wireless broadband is different from the traditional wireline world," they write, "in part because the mobile marketplace is more competitive and changing rapidly.

"In recognition of the still-nascent nature of the wireless broadband marketplace, under this proposal we would not now apply most of the wireline principles to wireless, except for the transparency requirement."

The future is inarguably a wireless one — and although the framework specifies that the US Government Accountability Office should issue an annual report on "whether or not current policies are working to protect consumers", the proposal gives no guidance on how, when, or in what way wireless broadband might ever be included in the wireline guidelines.

Equally — perhaps more — concerning to those who want a flat-internet future is the proposal's clear statement that its "open Internet" strictures would only apply to current technologies and internet useage patterns.

"Our proposal would allow broadband providers to offer additional, differentiated online services, in addition to the Internet access and video services (such as Verizon's FIOS TV) offered today," Davidson and Tauke write. Those services would be exempt from the "paid prioritization" prohibition.

No attempt is made in either Davidson and Tauke's explanation or in the proposal itself to outline the scope of "additional, differentiated online services," although a few examples are given. "Health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options," apparently.

Examples don't define a range — and one could, of course, drive the proverbial truck through that "entertainment" loophole.

Call us cautious or call us cynical, but The Reg finds itself concerned that what Google and Verizon's proposal actually defines is a future in which carriers could redefine their services as "differentiated", thus removing them from the proposal's oversight.

At minimum, providers could simply focus on the newer, more lucrative, services and let their "open Internet" services die on the vine. The proposal does note that: "The FCC would also monitor the development of these services to make sure they don't interfere with the continued development of Internet access services," but the FCC's willingness to inject itself into regulation, as we mentioned above, correlates highly with the political winds.

As is true with everything these days in the good ol' US of A, it all comes down to politics — and as The Reg noted last week when Google and Verizon denied that a tiered-internet deal was in the works, over four times as much money was spent on lobbying by anti net-neuts versus pro net-neuts. That amount of cash — $19.7m versus $4.7m in the first quarter of 2010 alone — buys plenty of wind. ®

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