Google, Verizon: Adversaries in Net Neutrality debate join forces for future of Internet Openness

Nathan Fan is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

The debate on network neutrality between network providers and content providers saw a moment of consolidation when the internet’s big name adversaries, Google and Verizon, submitted a joint submission regarding their views of an “Open Internet” to the Federal Communications Commission on 14 January 2010. In their submission, Google and Verizon expressed the common ground that they had found with respect to network neutrality and an open internet.

Although they still disagree quite strongly over certain policies, they seem to have come to common terms over a number of important “overarching values” that are essential in creating a framework for an “enlightened, sustainable Internet policy for the United States”.

Google and Verizon’s joint submission outlays a platform spanning several overarching values in which both companies can agree upon. One point of agreement is in the understanding that the Internet is unique in that it has flourished out of a framework of minimal government regulation and that this framework should continue into the future of the Internet “ecosystem”. There are also guiding principles that they believe are necessary for maintaining this growth, such as preserving openness, providing users with control and transparency to make informed decision, and encouraging investment and innovation in broadband networks. Google and Verizon are also both in strong agreement that communications laws and regulations should not apply to Internet applications, content or services. In fact, they state that the FCC does not have jurisdiction over the Internet, and if anything, the Internet should be governed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

Another point of agreement is that government intervention should only play a role in situations where industry mechanisms are unable to resolve harmful or anti-competitive behaviour, and such intervention should be “surgical, swift” and on a case-by-case basis. To further self-regulation, the submission proposes Technical Advisory Groups (TAGs) to provide guidance and expeditious conflict resolution. TAGs would be comprised of stakeholders with technical expertise to help guide all parties in the Internet “ecosystem” by developing best practices or principles, providing advisory opinions, acting as a forum for dispute resolution, and coordinating with industry standard-setting bodies to ensure that the guidance provided is in accordance to current standards.

Interestingly, Google and Verizon have also agreed that a non-discrimination rule for ISPs should only be made for the prevention of harm to users or anti-competitive behaviour. Google seems to have accepted the realities that being an efficient and effective network carrier may require discriminatory access to bandwidth. While they do not necessarily agree on which practices should be allowable, they agree that such practices should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Google and Verizon have also each submitted their own separate filings expressing their positions regarding issues that they could not come to agreement in the joint submission.

The submissions were spurred by an announcement from the FCC back in September 2009 of their proposal to protect consumer access to an “open Internet” and impose rules that would preserve network neutrality. The rules would require greater transparency about network management practices and would essentially prevent broadband-based ISPs from discriminating against certain services, applications or viewpoints on the Internet. In his statement, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stated that the once free and open internet is now faced with many substantial challenges and is at a crossroads. Genachowski recited the various ways in which broadband providers had constrained consumers’ access to an open internet, including the unilateral blocking of access to VoIP applications, technical measures that degrade performance of peer-to-peer software (including the distribution of lawful content), and the denial of access to certain political content.

He also further outlined three reasons as to why the FCC is concerned about the future of the Internet’s openness. First, there is limited competition among service providers in America. As consumers make the shift from dial-up to broadband, the competition is greatly reduced and it leaves consumers with little choice. Second, the economic incentives that drive broadband providers may run counter to the best interests of consumers. As most carrier companies rely upon revenue from selling phone services and cable TV, their revenue streams are threatened by competing voice (e.g. VoIP) and video products over the Internet. Third, the explosion of traffic on the Internet runs the risk of allowing the growth of sophisticated technologies for managing the broadband networks to outrun the policy concerns that need to be resolved along the way.

At stake for the network carriers is the potential of unintended consequences from an overreaching or over-generalized approach, especially if the new regulations extend to the mobile industry. As the new regulations would prevent the service providers from discriminating against certain Internet services, their wireless carrier services are at significant risk as they make most of their revenue from voice and texting. The FCC proposal would effectively encourage wireless customers to reduce their voice and texting service plans by replacing them with Internet-based services like Skype and Google.

Service providers also fear the potential consequences of the FCC proposal over anti-discrimination rules. With the Internet boom and the increased volume of bandwidth hogging services, the ISPs argue that it would be extremely difficult for them to operate efficient carrier services without active network management. Others argue further that the net neutrality proposals could also stifle innovation in active network management technology.

Whether or not Google and Verizon have other personal business agendas in mind for the joint submission, which wouldn’t be surprising, it nevertheless presents a good faith gesture of a collaborative approach to the future of the Internet. The Internet truly is a unique creature and as our world becomes increasingly dependent on it for daily living, Google and Verizon’s ‘compromise’ shows preparation to move forward beyond the current crossroads.