Google-Verizon Net Neutrality Pact: 5 Red Flags

Google and Verizon unveiled a proposal to maintain an open Internet while creating room for a broadband network of premium services. The proposal has no legal standing whatsoever, and is basically a policy paper on network neutrality for consideration by Congress and the Federal Communications Commission. Network neutrality is the principle that broadband providers should not be allowed to discriminate or restrict Web traffic based on its content.

Regardless of the legal standing, this proposal is backed by two major technology corporations involved in the network neutrality debate. That means the proposal could influence discussions about the future of broadband Internet access in the U.S.

So far, reaction to the proposal has been highly critical. Citizen interest group Public Knowledge said the proposal "shouldn't form the basis of legislation in Congress or of rules by the FCC." The headline "Google Goes 'Evil'" lead the Huffington Post's coverage of the proposal.

FCC Commission Michael J. Copps believes the Google-Verizon proposal is a call for the FCC to assert "authority over broadband telecommunications. (PDF)" to protect the interests of users. While Paul Misener, Amazon's vice president for global public policy, told The New York Times the Google-Verizon proposal "appears to condone services that could harm consumer Internet access."

There are many concerns and questions surrounding the Google-Verizon proposal. Here are five things that are top of my mind.

How Would this So-called Private Internet Work?

Verizon, and presumably other broadband providers, want the right to maintain a so-called private Internet to provide new services that don't exist yet. Some examples of what private broadband services could be include health care monitoring, educational services, gaming and other forms of entertainment. This private service would be separate from the regular Internet.

In theory, this sounds like a fair idea since a carrier's private network wouldn't infringe on the existing Internet we have today. But how would this play out in practice?

Would Verizon, for example, be able to tell Blizzard Entertainment--the company behind online games like World of Warcraft--that its services must be on the private network because it takes up too much bandwidth on the regular Internet?

Are there other, less direct ways broadband providers could pressure online companies to move to the private network?

Why is wireless out?

By all accounts, wireless Internet (3G and Edge cellular service) is the fastest-growing means for accessing the Internet. So why does the Google-Verizon proposal leave wireless access out of the network neutrality debate? The proposal says the wireless industry is too "competitive and changing rapidly" to be included in any net neutrality agreement.

But if safeguards aren't put in place now, what happens when wireless access becomes the dominant way to access the Internet? In fact, that future may be here sooner than you think. A recent study by Morgan Stanley predicts more people will be getting online via mobile devices than PCs within 5 years. What happens to network neutrality then?

What Does "Lawful Internet Content" Mean?

The Google-Verizon proposal says broadband providers "would not be able to discriminate against or prioritize lawful Internet content." I have to wonder if by "lawful Internet content" what these two companies really mean is "any content but torrents," also known as peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing.

It's no secret that broadband carriers have a grudge against p2p file sharing and wouldn't mind if it disappeared. Vuze, a company that makes p2p software, has claimed in the past that all U.S. broadband carriers disrupt p2p traffic. Broadband carrier Comcast has battled against file sharing in recent years claiming the file sharing protocol slows down the network for all users.

It's also no secret that many users on p2p networks are trading copyrighted files such as major Hollywood movies, TV shows, video games, music and even digital scans of comic books.

But p2p can be used for legitimate purposes as well. Activist group the Yes Men recently released their documentary "The Yes Men Fix the World" as a publicly available torrent file. Michael Moore did the same thing for "Slacker Uprising" in 2008, and the CBC (Canada's public broadcaster) has also experimented with distributing content via torrents.

For all the criticism and bad press it gets, torrent protocols are an efficient and useful way to distribute content (legal or otherwise). So how would the Google-Verizon proposal effect p2p file sharing? Would access to sites like The Pirate Bay or other torrent databases be restricted based on accusations that most of the content it points to isn't "lawful"? Also, how deeply would broadband carriers be monitoring p2p traffic to watch out for unlawful content on their networks?

What Happens to the Regular Internet?

The Google-Verizon proposal appears to make room for a two-tiered Internet: the public Internet we use today and a private one for premium services. That raises the question about what happens to the regular Internet in the long term? Would broadband providers be compelled to maintain and upgrade their regular Internet services? Could carriers cap regular Internet speeds at a certain level, and then force users over to the proposed private service if they wanted better broadband speeds? How does an open or so-called public Internet survive when corporations have financial incentives, such as private networks, to ignore it?

What Will Be The Costs?

Finally, how much is this going to cost the regular end user? If this proposed framework succeeds and carriers are able to offer private services, what are the costs going to be? Would fees be structured like cable packages, as some reports have suggested, where you buy one plan for entertainment services like gaming and another for services like health care monitoring? Or would services be provided a la carte, where you just pay for the access you want?

The aim of the Verizon-Google plan is to maintain an open Internet and for "continued investment in broadband infrastructure." But is a proposed two-tiered broadband system that ignores the growing popularity of wireless access really a good way to maintain open Internet access for all? I'm not so sure.

Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul).

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