Nobody knew for a long time what Google and Verizon were cooking up on
the network neutrality front, and after the release of their brief,
two-page roadmap (posted On
Scribd as a PDF, among other places) nobody still knows. All the
usual Internet observers have had their say, and in general the
assessment is negative.
My first reaction was to ignore the whole thing, mainly because the
language of the agreement didn’t match any Internet activity I could
recognize. Some of the false notes struck:
The Consumer Protections section keeps using the term “lawful” as if
there was a regulatory regime on the Internet. Not even the people
regularly accused of trying to extend government control over the
Internet (ICANN, WSIS, and the ITU) believe they can define what’s
lawful and make people stick to it.
If I can send and receive only lawful content, who do Google and
Verizon think can stop me from exchanging child pornography or
instructions to blow up buildings? What, in turn, distinguishes lawful
applications and services from unlawful ones (outside of Saudi Arabia
and the United Arab Emirates)?
Deduction: This passage represents no meaningful or enforceable rules,
but is thrown in to make regulators feel there’s a policy where in
fact there is none.
The Transparency section strews around nice, general statements no one
could complain about –don’t we all want our services to tell us what
they’re doing?– but the admonitions are too general to interpret or
For instance, Apple is adamant about its right to determine what apps
are available to iPhone and iPad buyers. Is that transparency?
Apparently not, because every Apple developer gnaws his fingernails
waiting to hear whether and when his app will be accepted into the App
Store. But I don’t see language in the Google/Verizon transparency
section that covers the App Store at all. They might well say it’s not a
Fine, let’s turn to networking. The carriers maintain that they need
flexibility and a certain degree of secrecy to combat abuses such as
spam; see for instance my blog Consider
the economics in network neutrality. Squaring this complex
issue — which is covered by the Google/Verizon in the next item on
Network Management — with transparency is a dilemma.
Deduction: we can all say we’re transparent and feel good, but life is
too complex for authorities to be totally transparent about what
they’re transparent about.
The worst passage in my view is the one in the Regulatory Authority
section assigning authority to the FCC for “broadband.” That
ill-defined term, used far too much in Washington, tends to appear in
the context of universal service. One can regulate broadband by such
things as providing incentives to build more networks, but the
Regulatory Authority section sidesteps the more basic questions of who
gets to regulate the building, interconnecting, and routing through
Deduction: Google and Verizon put this in to encourage the government
to continue pouring money into the current telcos and cable companies
so they can build more high-speed networks, but its effect on
regulation is nil.
Not too inspiring on first impression, but because so many other
people raised such a brouhaha over the Google/Verizon announcement, I
decided to think about it a bit more. And I actually ended up feeling
good about one aspect. The proposal is really a big concession to the
network neutrality advocates. I had been feeling sour about proposals
for network neutrality because, as nice as they sound in the abstract,
the devil is in the details. Network management for spam and other
attacks provides one example.
But the Google/Verizon announcement explicitly denounces
discrimination and mandates adherence to Internet standards. (Of
course, some Internet standards govern discrimination.) It seems to me
that, after this announcement, no network provider can weep and wring
its hands and claim that it would be unable to do business on a
non-discriminatory basis. And network neutrality advocates can cite
this document for support.
But as others have pointed out, the concession granted in the
“Non-Discrimination Requirement” section is ripped away by the
“Additional Online Services” section to “traffic prioritization.” This
makes it clear that the “services” offered in that section reach deep
into the network infrastructure, where they can conflict directly with
public Internet service. Unless someone acknowledges the contradiction
between the two sections and resolves it in a logical manner, this
document becomes effectively unusable.
What about the other pesky little exemption in the proposal — wireless
networks? Certainly, a lot of computing is moving to mobile devices.
But wireless networks really are special. Not only are they hampered
by real limits on traffic — the networks being shared and having
limited spectrum — but users have limited tolerance for unwanted
content and for fidgeting around with their devices. They don’t want
to perform sophisticated control over transmission over content; they
need someone to do it for them.
Anyway, fiber is always going to provide higher bandwidth than
wireless spectrum. So I don’t believe wireless will become
dominant. It will be an extremely valuable companion to us as we walk
through the day, saving data about ourselves and getting information
about our environment, but plenty of serious work will go on over the
So in short, I disdain the Google/Verizon agreement from an editor’s
point of view but don’t mind it as a user. In general, I have nothing
against parties in a dispute (here, the telephone companies who want
to shape traffic and the Internet sites who don’t want them to)
conducting talks to break down rigid policy positions and arrive at
compromises. The Google/Verizon talks are fraught with implications,
of course, because Google is a wireless provider and Verizon
distributes lots of phones with Google’s software and services. So I
take the announcement as just one stake in the ground along a large
frontier. I don’t see the proposal being adopted in any regulatory
context — it’s too vague and limited –but it’s interesting for what it
says about Google and Verizon.