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What I get and don't get about the Google/Verizon proposal

Google and VerizonNobody 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
    apply.

    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
    networking issue.

    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
    networks.

    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
open Internet.

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.

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  • Joseph Scott

    Anyway, fiber is always going to provide higher bandwidth than wireless spectrum. So I don’t believe wireless will become dominant.

    Top speed is not the same as over all use. A Shelby SuperCar Ultimate Aero is always going to be faster than a Toyota Corolla. If you add up all the miles driven by all the owners of those two cars the Corolla wins by a long shot, despite the Ultimate Aero having a much higher top speed.

    Will wireless use eventually exceed that of wired? Perhaps, I’m not sure. But I wouldn’t list is as impossible just because wired has a higher top speed.

  • Nelson Minar

    Thoughtful post, but I really disagree with you about wireless. Wireless is the only consumer network that will matter in 10 years. I’ve tried hard, but I can’t imagine why Google would concede open access to wireless carriers now.

  • Karim Yaghmour

    @Nelson Minar, FWIW I actually think Facebook has something to do with this: http://www.karimyaghmour.com/blog/2010/08/is-android-googles-t1000.html

  • Brett Glass

    Andy:

    Some of the points above are good, but you are missing a lot of the bigger picture.

    The buzzphrase “network neutrality” has never had any agreed-upon definition.

    In practice, it simply means whatever the speaker hopes to accomplish by imposing onerous regulations upon ISPs. In Google’s case, it wants to protect its multiple Internet monopolies (Internet search, Internet search advertising, Internet banner advertising, Internet video) by
    regulating ISPs. There are several possible choke points at which it can do this, and thus several definitions of “network neutrality” that would be acceptable to it. In the proposal with Verizon, it shows that wireless is not a priority to it so long as any form of prioritization closer to the center of the Net is considered, presumptively, to be wrong. This gives Google’s private fiber, on which it CAN prioritize, the edge.

    By issuing the joing proposal with Verizon, Google is being crafty and hedging its bets. Its internal lobbyists are pushing for one definition of “network neutrality” in negotiations with Verizon (and was also doing so in the closed door meetings at the FCC), while Google’s external lobbying groups (Public Knowledge, Free Press, New America, Future of Music Coalition, Open Internet Coalition) are pushing for another which pretends to be more “idealistic” but in reality accomplishes the same thing: protecting Google’s monopoly positions and locking out new competition. These “astroturf” groups claim that because they are taking a very slightly different stance than Google’s internal lobbyists, they’re opposing Google and therefore are not working for it. (The money trails, of course, demonstrate otherwise.) Good cop, bad cop — but they’re both cops.

    Google is thus playing both sides of the fence, allowing its astroturf lobbyists to pretend not to be beholden to it and to claim to be serving the “public interest” by advocating more restrictive regulation. It is also trying to reframe the debate as being HOW MUCH to regulate rather than WHETHER to regulate. No one should fall for this. All of Google’s proposed regulations would be harmful to competition and to consumers and should be rejected.

    If either definition prevails, and “network neutrality” legislation or regulations are passed, Google wins. And the public is harmed by higher broadband prices, fewer choices of Internet providers, lower quality of service, slower deployment, less innovation, and (of course) being forced to deal with Google’s monopolies.

    The only way the PUBLIC wins is if no “network neutrality” regulation of any form happens. It’s not necessary. The Internet has survived for 27 years without it and is still going strong — despite the doomsaying of Google’s lobbyists.

  • D Tomkins

    I have no idea how the Google/Verizon will work out, but I find it interesting that advocates and commentators are claiming security concerns.

    Anyway, fiber is always going to provide higher bandwidth than wireless spectrum. So I don’t believe wireless will become dominant.

    Andy, obviously you live in a developed nation. In the 3rd world, and especially the tropical band, fiber will never reach beyond the major cities, and even there, almost all access will be through wireless communication, whether last mile or cellular. Over 2/3 of the world’s internet population will never have access to fiber.

    For example, in the most important community of our state in rural Honduras access via cellular is 1/5 the cost of wireless broadband (so-called) and has higher bandwidth. Broadband between this city and the capital, Tegucigalpa, is via microwave. The main fiber cable for the nation is hanging on trees and laying on the ground between the coast and the capital. It is easier to repair that way! [grn]

  • Robert Young

    – Anyway, fiber is always going to provide higher bandwidth than wireless spectrum.

    Well, if you’re convinced that growing tumours in real time is a disincentive.

    But, the 600 lb. gorilla still sits in the room: how to apportion the highly disparate costs of 1) surfing pages to look at and buy stuff and 2) streaming audio/video content in real time. The argument has been going on for years. With iPhone and now iPad, the argument has to be joined. Should the vast majority who just surf subsidize those who stream? If so, then the network (physical stuff) has to be socialized, however that is done.

    Isn’t it odd that “net neutrality” amounts to demanding that all users must contribute a small per user fee, in order that a few wastrels can slurp up gobs of resources, yet we aren’t allowed to make the equivalent demand of health care? People are funny.