Google, Verizon offer net
A free internet — except when it isn't
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.
"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. ®
Who does Google and Verizon represent?
Somehow this proposal comes across a bit like all "interested parties" getting together to draft a proposal for the criminal code. I'm not sure that these companies should even be involved in this kind of thing.
Again, it is a matter of proactive versus reactive. The net has always been neutral in that access to information has not (with very rare exceptions) been prevented. Companies can and do discriminate traffic based on protocol, but the traffic will eventually get from point A to point B.
The exception to this has always tended to be filtering illegal traffic: cutting off spammers, or prevention of individuals within a country from access information their government deems wrong.
The issue at hand is whether or not to allow the corporations that own the pipes and own the content to block you from accessing parts of the internet. I don’t give a rat’s if they want to discriminate based on protocol. So long as there are least two ISPs in a given area to chose from, there should be enough competition that they will eventually get into a war based on who will filter your traffic less.
If we allow ISPs to own content, or to form deep alliances with content owners then we enter entirely other territory. There is now suddenly a business case for preventing (or at the very least deprioritising) access to services offered by rival cabals. There may even be reason to prevent access to blogs, media outlets or what-have-you that deliver a message contrary to that which the cabal in questions wishes it’s customers to have access to.
You say that we should not legislate against this until after it has happened. I call that bizarre and dangerous. It seems we are at a complete impasse here; our opinions will likely never be reconciled. The ability to charge different rates based on the ORIGIN, DESTINATION or ACTUAL CONTENT (not PROTOCOL TYPE) of traffic is my beef. That is net neutrality to me; keeping the access to information 100% open, and preferably enshrined in law.
Enshrined as a human right, if at all possible. I do not believe that it should be a human right to have X Mbit internet access or free access to the latest episode of Survivor. But it damned well should be a human right to consume any freely available information without prejudice, and to have the opportunity to pay for and receive any information behind a paywall without prejudice.
If I pay for HTTP traffic, I should receive all HTTP traffic from all sources without prejudice or prioritisation. If my ISP is partnered with NBC they should not be preventing or deprioritising traffic to/from the BBC. Similarly, if my ISP is partnered with FOX, they shouldn’t be preventing or deprioritising my access to left-wing websites or anything that actually provides access to provable facts or scientific research.
Has anyone done this yet? No. It is however only a matter of time. If any corporation in the position to do thinks for a fraction of a second it can “generate revenue” but doing so then it will be done. Corporations don’t have morals; they have only the pursuit of the almighty dollar. The possibility that corporations will prevent or deprioritise access to information in order to either gain competitive advantage or shape public discourse is a threat. It should be dealt with accordingly.
Nice redirection with the malaria thing though. It’s nice to know what our societies must obviously solve problems in an arbitrarily defined hierarchy. “Don’t worry about this problem, that problem is far worse!” Personally I believe that preventing any entity, from governments to corporate cabals from controlling information in such a way as to effectively control the public at large is THE most important issue in the entire world. You will never convince me otherwise.
If the rich and powerful have total information control then nothing will ever be solved. Why? They became rich and powerful because of how things are; any change at all is a direct threat to them.
This then is why I revered good investigative journalists growing up. The ones who didn’t let their stories get killed, and who stood up for telling the truth regardless of who wanted what parts cut. I was lucky enough to know a few growing up, and frankly it’s why I like reading The Register. There are the rare folks around here who “speak truth to power” even when it’s inconvenient.
Personally, I will not stand idly by while there is any potential threat to the free flow of information. Access to information needs to become more open, not less. We certainly don’t have completely free access to information now, but that should never be used as an excuse to allow further restriction.
It needs to be used as a reason to identify areas where access to information is restricted and fight those barriers with everything we as citizens can bring to bear. (With acceptable barriers for individual privacy. I don’t believe corporations or governments should have the rights of individuals, and so in all honesty I don’t believe in corporate or governmental rights to privacy.)
I’m sorry if you feel I’m a whackjob for believing that, but that belief is part of the very core of who I am, and has been for as long as I can remember. I also believe in being proactive about threats, from computer maintenance to corporate malfeasance. Placing an outer marker on information control and manipulation isn’t the equivalent of corporate pre-crime. It’s letting everyone; from corporations and governments to individuals know where the line is, and establishing penalties for crossing it before someone tries.
If you were starting up a new country, would you wait until the first murder before outlawing it? Or less alarmist; would you wait until the first town/university/church group tried to censor access to information they didn't like before you declared such activates illegal? If you wouldn’t, they why wait until after access to information on the internet has been curtailed before declaring such activities verboten? At what point do we start learning from the past and proactively working to better our collective future?
Comcast didn't just "cock up"
They specifically said that they were doing 'traffic shaping' and went as far as equating their forging of RST packets with 'busy signals'. In reality, what they were doing was altering the packet traffic, sending bogus RST packets which in fact is more like 'cutting the phone line' instead of 'busy signal'. I think that behaviour is even considered illegal as it is interfering with comms, probably a federal crime as well.
Traffic shaping and QoS may be bad, but what Comcast was doing was outright evil.