I wasn’t planning on writing about the Google/Verizon proposal for net neutrality rules, but given the level of hysteria people whipped themselves into yesterday, I felt I had to.
The news in a nutshell: after months of talks, Google and U.S. telecom giant Verizon have proposed a set of rules designed to enshrine net neutrality, which has many different meanings but generally comes down to internet service providers not being allowed to discriminate between different kinds of traffic. The fears generally boil down to a cable TV/internet company slowing down competing video services because those services eat its own lunch, or a phone company slowing down something like Skype for similar reasons, and so on.
Google and Verizon proposed seven possible rules that would prevent this sort of stuff from happening, and they’re generally decent, balanced rules. There were two, however, that twisted everybody’s panties into a knot and prompted proclamations that Google - a long-time advocate (and beneficiary) of net neutrality - had sold out, betrayed its users and basically “gone evil.”
The first “bad” proposal has to do with the five good proposals not applying to wireless services, only wired, such as cable, DSL and fiber. The second “bad” rule seems to be a weird one that expressly permits internet providers to build their own private internet, where they can do all sorts of internet un-neutral things, like block certain services, slow others, charge company A to run its content faster than company B, and so on.
The problem with both rules, pundits said, is that they will encourage phone and cable companies to invest in the new, non-neutral Internet 2.0 and eventually shift all their customers on to it.
There are so many problems with all of these criticisms, it’s hard to know where to start. How about with Google’s apparent betrayal? The two “bad” proposals seem very much like well-played compromises on Google’s part, rather than the proverbial knife in the back. The reason given for not applying net neutrality rules to wireless was to not discourage network builders from investing in what is still a relatively new technology. The rule suggestion, however, carries with it an important clause that would let authorities check in periodically to determine if wireless should continue to be exempt.
Here in Canada, net neutrality rules were created by our regulator, the CRTC, last October. The CRTC used the same logic in exempting wireless at the time, yet changed its mind less than nine months later, in July. Google knows this - it lobbied for net neutrality rules in Canada. The company must therefore also know that there isn’t a very solid logical foundation that can keep wireless free from net neutrality rules for long if they also happen to apply to the wired internet. So on this front, I’d score Google some points in how it negotiated with Verizon - the wireless company’s win is a temporary one at best.
In terms of the concession on letting internet providers create a parallel internet, well that’s no concession at all - phone and cable companies can do that today if they want. The reason they haven’t done so should be readily apparent: such private internets would fail spectacularly. In some ways, they already have - AOL built itself a nice walled private internet, and the company barely exists today. Facebook has done something similar and it’s a fairly smart bet that its approach won’t last for long.
Critics need to step back and think for a minute. In the first instance, cable and phone companies have again and again proven themselves incapable of doing anything but running cable and phone services. Remember when you used to buy your cellphone music, ringtones and screen savers from the wireless companies? Remember how horrible it was until Apple and others who actually knew what they were doing stepped in? Remember when phone companies used to sell you internet security and anti-virus packages? How well did those do? Take one look around today at some of the online on-demand video sites being run by cable companies, and then compare them to services such as Netflix, YouTube and Hulu and tell me honestly that a private internet run by these people will be remotely as compelling as the public one.
In the second instance, why would established internet companies such as Amazon, Skype, eBay and the rest move to a private internet where the rules are set by cable and phone companies? Most importantly, why would Google, which depends on an open internet to make almost all of its money (through ads), choose to set up shop on a closed system? The illogic of it is baffling.
That second “bad” proposal contained the caveat that there also would be rules in place to ensure phone and cable companies don’t invest more in their private internet than they do in the public version. If anything, this proposal is again the result of some shrewd negotiation on the part of Google. The company is essentially saying, “Hey, if the cable and phone guys want to go and build their own internet, let them. As long as they don’t short shrift the regular internet, that’s fine.” Google has faith that the internet providers will remain true to form and create networks that nobody will want to use, yet if they want to throw good money after bad, they should have that option. Critics would do well to share some of that faith.
Speaking of which… on a personal note, I find it funny how so many internet pundits - many of whom have never spoken to a Google executive - were so quick to jump on the “Google is evil” bandwagon. I’ve probably met, spoke with and interviewed more Google execs than perhaps any other company, and without exception, they’ve all understood and had net neutrality principles close to their hearts. Their company and fortunes, after all, were built on them.
Google’s most strident supporter of net neutrality is Vint Cerf, a vice-president and “chief internet evangelist.” He’s also often referred to as the “father of the internet” for his role in writing the protocols in the 70s on which the network is based. I’ve written before about how much I like speaking with Vint because he is a very sincere and smart man that seems devoid of any ulterior agenda. I imagine his reaction to this whole situation must be quite visceral: if the critics are right and I’m wrong, I can’t imagine his resignation from Google will be too long in coming. But if what I suspect is right - that once again, unthinking reactionaries and the media have blown this completely out of proportion - then I imagine he’s got to be very disappointed.
The best thing for Google to do now, if indeed this is the situation, might be to roll Vint out and do damage control. His credibility on net neutrality is unassailable, and some reassurance from him would go a long way to correcting some of the opinions out there. There are precious few people out there who are thinking this thing through. One such sober fellow, fortunately, is Tim Wu - yet another staunch net neutrality advocate (and Toronto native). He had a piece in Slate yesterday, albeit written before Google and Verizon announced their proposal, that looked at this issue in considerably more sane terms. Hopefully folks like Wu don’t get drowned out by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
UPDATE: I should have mentioned above that I do believe the FCC and ultimately Congress should be in charge of writing the rules, not corporations. On the other hand, given that regulators and politicians (in Canada and the U.S.) have proven themselves to be thoroughly lobbyable, perhaps this is the more honest approach because at least we know where the rules are really coming from.
The other thing I should have addressed is the fallacies of net neutrality absolutists, and why they need to be ignored. Throughout the debates in Canada and the U.S., there has been a faction of people that believe “bits are bits” and that all data on the internet should be treated equally. I’ve never believed that because it’s totally wrong - the internet simply wouldn’t work properly if internet providers didn’t manage and treat different forms of traffic differently.
The fact that Skype, Hulu or online gaming actually work is the result of traffic discrimination: service providers give those more time-sensitive applications more attention, while applications that don’t require immediacy - such as email - get a little bit less. The problems have arisen with peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent, which have been blocked or slowed by some service providers. While there have been legitimate uses of BitTorrent, in all honesty the vast majority of people who use it do so to download pirated movies, TV shows, music (and my book). Free stuff is of course competition for the stuff that phone and cable companies often sell, so the question has become: why do the internet providers get to decide which applications get special treatment and which don’t?
That’s exactly the question that the net neutrality rules we have in Canada, and those proposed in the U.S., seek to answer. Such rules create a complaint framework that will allow aggrieved parties to make their case. If peer-to-peer applications can be shown to be time sensitive, then they’ll be protected under net neutrality rules and internet providers will be forced to give them better priority. It’s worth noting that Skype is based on peer-to-peer technology, yet internet providers generally degrade it at their peril. What absolutists refuse to accept is that if they’re going to download, say, the entire Led Zeppelin catalog for free, well they may just have to wait a little while to get it.