Is Google selling out net neutrality?

Google and Verizon are reportedly close to an agreement ending network neutrality — the principle that all information traversing the internet is treated equally — and allowing Verizon to offer higher speeds to content providers willing to pay the price. So report both Edward Wyatt writing for the New York Times and Cecilia Kang writing for the Washington Post. Similar reports of secret meetings between Google and the US’s largest telecommunications and cable concerns have been floating around the blogosphere for quite some time, but Wyatt’s and Kang’s reports are the first in the country’s mainstream corporate media.

Wyatt writes that the result of such an agreement could eventually be higher prices for internet users and in the place of net neutrality, “consumers could soon see a new, tiered system, which, like cable television, imposes higher costs for premium levels of service.” A federal appeals court ruled (.pdf; 106KB) that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) didn’t have the authority to prevent internet service providers (ISPs)from blocking or slowing down specific traffic on their networks.

Google denies that any secret talks or negotiations are taking place in an article by Sharon Gaudin for Computerworld. “The New York Times is quite simply wrong,” Google spokesperson Mistique Cano wrote in an email to Gaudin. “We have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google traffic. We remain as committed as we always have been to an open internet.”

But Jeff Jarvis cites a CNBC interview with Eric Schmidt, chair and chief executive of Google: “Schmidt clarified that the net neutrality he advocates is not a neutrality between different types of content, but between the same type of content. He wants to make sure that there’s no discrimination between one video download over another.” That leaves a whopper of a hole with regard to true net neutrality. Jarvis goes on to nail the real problem that will result if net neutrality is ditched, when he writes, “What also concerns me is that creators will get screwed, too. Only the big guys will be able to afford to pay ISPs for top-tier service and so we return to the media oligarchy that — O, irony — YouTube and Google broke apart. … And then we’re back to a world of big-media control over what we get to see.” Jarvis’s observations are especially poignant because he’s got some pretty serious Google skin in this particular game.

Dan Gillmor, writing for Salon, references a Verizon blog post in which the telecommunications giant doesn’t deny the secret meetings, but says the Times, “fundamentally misunderstands our purpose.” The blog post does not mention anything with regard to net neutrality. Gillmor rightly points out that “… internet access is an oligopoly business, creating unprecedented (at least in modern times) choke points for information.”

Verizon spokesman David M. Fish acknowledged the talks to the Times‘s Wyatt: “We’ve been working with Google for 10 months to reach an agreement on broadband policy. … We are currently engaged in and committed to the negotiation process led by the FCC. We are optimistic this process will reach a consensus that can maintain an open internet, and the investment and innovation required to sustain it.” The negotiation process to which Fish refers is an ongoing series of closed-door, semi-secret FCC meetings with Google, Verizon, AT&T, Skype, Comcast and other cable operators, and the Open Internet Coalition — all the stakeholders, it would seem, except us, the citizenry and taxpayers — to discuss net neutrality and the FCC’s legal basis for regulation.

The FCC is said to favor strong network neutrality, but it’s authority to impose neutrality is in doubt since the federal appeals court ruling. As a result, the FCC is proposing to reclassify broadband internet connectivity from an information service to a telecommunications service under the Communications Act. Such a reclassification would subject internet service providers to much stricter regulation. This would be an absolute step in the right direction of preserving network neutrality.

Todd Shields, writing for Bloomberg, cites “two people briefed by the companies,” as saying Verizon and Google have already reached a deal. The deal “would restrict Verizon from selectively slowing Internet content that travels over is wires, but wouldn’t apply such limits to internet use on mobile phones.”

Update: Thursday, 05 August 2010 08:17PM CDT: In a Los Angeles Times story dated 6 August 2010, Jennifer Martinez is reporting that the FCC has given up on brokering a net neutrality compromise behind closed doors or otherwise. Martinez cites the FCC as saying the talks had not “generated a robust framework to preserve openness and freedom of the internet.” I’m not sure from reading this whether the FCC has given up on net neutrality (a bad thing) or simply given up on the closed-door, semi-secret meetings with corporate interests (a good thing).

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