Notes from a Disappointed Fanboy

Net Neutrality is a complicated issue.  The recent Google/Verizon policy proposal has raised new questions about the open internet - the idea that all online content gets treated equally.  To explore this issue, we're featuring a series of guest blog posts on our site.  Today, the thoughts of David Weinberger, Senior Researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society

There is no denying that I am a Google fanboy. I postponed my technolust for an iPhone until I could get a Droid. I switched from the Firefox browser to Google's Chrome. I use Google Mail, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Docs, and Google Maps, and I'd probably use Google Bugle and Google Tattoogle, if such things existed. I bought into Google products in large part because they tend to kick butt, but I have put up with some frustrations because I believed that Google was on my side. Our side. "Where are the other big companies that are standing up for the open Internet?" I have asked in public more than once.

So, Google's joint proposal with Verizon hurt. Has Google cheated on me? Were there others before Verizon? Did Google ever really love me in the first place?

Ours is a complex relationship. There's still much I love about Google. The people I know who have been hired by them have not only been the smartest of the smart, they have also all been seriously committed to improving the world. Google has been a model of how to succeed by putting your users' needs first. As an employer, a software house, and a cultural force, Google still generally (note the qualifier) embodies geek values that I share.

But, now Google has come out with a policy proposal — a proposed framework for legislators to adopt — in conjunction with a company that has not been a particular friend of an open Internet. How do I make sense of it?

At issue is Net neutrality, the policy of not speeding or blocking bits based on their content, source, or purpose. This is a fundamental policy of the Internet itself. Despite what access providers would like us to believe, the Internet does not consist of the wires and radio waves that carry it. The Internet is an agreement among interconnecting networks about how they will work together. Part of that deal — the deal that is the Internet — is that participating networks won't block or impede the traffic other networks send over it.

Net neutrality keeps those who provide access to the Internet from deciding for us what works best on the Internet. They can't decide to make the high def videos they're renting to us work better than the videos from competitors, or better than videos we make for ourselves. They can't sell a "fast lane" to some big company that can afford to squash its competition. And they can't decide to block content that they happen not to agree with. So, Net neutrality is a big deal, and Google has been — had been — the largest company to get behind enshrining Net neutrality in law and or policy.

So, like a suspicious spouse, I find myself sorting endlessly through the signs.

There are some compromises on Net neutrality that might make sense. For example, few would object to allowing access providers to stop some types of Internet attacks by blocking bits, even though that may technically violate Net neutrality. And Verizon is a reasonable partner for Google to make a proposal for compromise with. Because of the comparative capacity of Verizon's fiber connectivity ("FiOS"), it hasn't felt the same pressure as other providers to limit traffic by discriminating against particular types of information. (Comcast famously blocked a popular form of file sharing, for which it got spanked by the FCC, but later got unspanked.)

But, this compromise goes too far. For one thing, it enshrines a major shift in Google's definition of Net neutrality that CEO Eric Schmidt casually announced last week: Google is fine with access providers deciding which services should get preferential treatment, so long as they don't differentiate within a service. So, Verizon could decide to slow down your online video game so that other subscribers could watch high def video. But Verizon would have to treat all high def video traffic equally. That's better than Verizon deciding that its own video library would work better than Comcast's, but it means that those who give us access to the Internet get to decide what it's really for. Nope. It's our Internet. We get to decide, and then to invent new uses. That is the source of the Internet's value.

Letting the access providers decide which services and content get preference is especially worrisome since they're also in the business of selling us those services and content. They'd get to shape the Internet to reflect their business model.

Like the inadvertent smell of perfume on a man's lapel, this fear that the access providers want to turn the Internet into a form of cable TV — making money by selling us professional content and services — is reinforced by the Googizon proposal (as it's known) giving the broadband access providers the right to sell "differentiated services" over the same wire but outside of the Internet. So, Verizon could cut a deal with a company to deliver, say, a jukebox service over Verizon's broadband connection, and charge more for delivering it faster than a competitor's service, so long as that service is "distinguishable in scope and purpose from Internet access service." In a posting on its Public Policy Blog (disclosure: I am friends with the author, Rick Whitt), Google notes that providers "already offer these types of services today," and says that the compromise in fact hedges the services in.

I'd be more disposed to believe that if I knew what "distinguishable in scope and purpose from Internet access service" meant. Couldn't anything delivered as a "differentiated service" also be delivered as an Internet service? Further, the Googizon proposal would allow these differentiated services to "make use of or access Internet content, appplications or services…" Again, I'm not sure what this means, except that it sounds like a company could pay Verizon to deliver content from the Internet faster than that content would travel over the Internet connection Verizon gives you. This would (if I'm understanding it) provide a strong incentive to big companies to move their service out of the Internet, and pony up the "fast lane" fees that Net neutrality is explicitly designed to prevent.

So, my doubts grow.

They are not assuaged by Google's dramatic cave-in on protecting the wireless Internet connection you get on your mobile. That's where Internet delivery is going, yet the Googizon proposal says that we don't need a Net neutrality policy there because that market is competitive. Yet this market provides strong incentives to its handful of competitors to discriminate wildly in favor of the content and services they're pitching to us.

My growing doubts now have me looking for language that wiggles — the "it depends on what the definition of ‘is' is" moments. For example:

  • The proposal says providers "would be prohibited from preventing users" from "sending and receiving lawful content…" So, could my access provider block me from visiting Wikileaks? How about file-sharing sites like ThePirateBay.org? Could they without penalty block my fair use of copyrighted materials? In fact, since we already have a legal system for prosecuting those who do illegal things, why are we putting the access providers in charge of this?
  • The proposal would prevent broadband access providers from blocking any usage in a way that causes "meaningful harm to competition or to users." Since the providers' justification for discriminating among bits — that is, for violating Net neutrality — has always been that they're doing it for the benefit of their users, this is a hole that could not be papered over even with the world's entire available supply of good will.

So, I want to continue to believe Google wants the best for the Net. But, I fear the Googizon proposal if adopted would result in the creation of two networks, with huge incentives for the access providers to shunt users to the one that they control. This threatens to take the steam out of the Internet as the cultural, economic, educational, artistic, and democratic force it was well on it's way to being.

It also takes pressure off of the Obama administration to boldly put the open Internet on a firm footing. By declaring the Net neutrality debate to be "intractable," Google is giving cover to those who would compromise away a basic principle. It's only intractable if you've given up.

I am not a Google hater. The people I know there are the same as they were last week. Google's software kicks the same amount of butt as it did last week. The vast bulk of Google's projects still generously support the same geek values as last week.

But now I have to wonder why Google is coming home so late with Verizon's scent on its lapel.

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