Evolution of Net Neutrality

Let’s take a look at the details of the Google/Verizon proposal for open Internet and see what it’s really all about.

As many of you probably know, there is a big debate going on right now about net neutrality. Most of the articles out there today are of the opinion that the Internet will be dead within 5 years, or that Google is betraying those values they claimed to hold so dear, but is that really the case? I’ll happily jump into a grassroots movement against big bad corporations, but I think it’s important not to get carried away too quickly. It’s so easy to freak out when people don’t actually do their research and know the context of what’s going on (remember the internet kill switch fiasco?) So before we get caught up in the hype and sensationalism, let’s take a look at what’s really going on here.

A Little Background

At the very root of the net neutrality debate is a fear: a fear that Big Bad Corporations are going to take over the internet. These Big Bad Companies will then allow their websites load super fast on your computer, and everyone else will be super slow. As a result, Big Bad Corporation will get more money, since their websites provide faster and more convenient content, while Mr. Joe Startup will fall along the wayside, a victim of less traffic due to a slower website. Or maybe Joe Startup’s website won’t even load for some people.

This fear started to become a a reality in 2008, when Comcast started slowing the traffic of individual ports commonly used by BitTorrent (a program commonly used for illegal file sharing). The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposed sanctions against Comcast for favoring sections of the internet over others, thus creating an unfair disadvantage for people using the common BitTorrent ports. Comcast fought back, which they had every right to, since there were no specific laws against throttling internet speeds on certain ports. The case went to court.

The real drama started on April 6th, 2010, when the courts ruled in Comcast’s favor. The ruling effectively stated that the FCC, the government agency set with the task of overseeing the business practices of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), had no right to oversee the business practices of ISPs. No good. So, as of April 6th, 2010, your ISP could block any website or content it wanted, for whatever reason. No wonder people are freaking out.

Google, on the other hand, has long since been a proponent of Net Neutrality and keeping the internet open and equal to everyone. Back in 2006, when a Net Neutrality Bill was entering the House of Representatives, they’ve urged the public to get off their asses and pick up a phone to support the bill. Which, when you think about it, makes perfect business sense for Google. As a company who’s goal is to create a searchable index of the entire internet, it is to their benefit to provide equal access to everything they find. So, while many people appreciate Google’s continued work towards Net Neutrality, Google’s priorities are focused on making money, not necessarily on the consumer. In this particular instance, focusing on the consumer’s rights made them more money, but people are still weary. And rightly so.

Current State of Affairs

Last Monday, Google posted a summary of a policy proposal for an open Internet written by both Google and Verizon (which I will now refer to as Googlezon).  This proposal is meant as an attempt to rebalance the scales after the alarming Comcast court decision, but instead it’s got bloggers all hot and bothered. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say they’re using scare tactics to influence the public, although I can’t quite figure out to what end. Here is io9’s vision of public (read: basic subscription plan) internet is 2016:

The public internet is basically overrun with 4Chan-like social networks that run very slowly and are drenched in advertising and spyware…There’s webmail, though sometimes all your saved messages disappear – for “guaranteed backups” you need to subscribe to the special mail service via Googlezon…It’s an antisocial space, a crumbling, unsupported legacy network, full of ads and graffiti.

That’s some scary shit right there! There must be some horrible in that two page Googlezon proposal. Unfortunately, most of the public will NOT read the two page proposal (dude, it’s two pages) nor will they have the wherewithal to form their own opinions after reading sensational posts like the one on io9. So, let’s try to take an objective view of the proposal and see what all the hype is about.

The Google/Verizon proposal for an open Internet

The first part of the bill discusses Google and Verizon working together to “preserve the open Internet and the vibrant and innovative markets it supports.” Wait, Google and Verizon are working together? When did this start? Google, a supplier and indexer of internet content is now working with an Internet Service Provider. That does seem sort of suspicious. Alright, let’s move on.

Immediately after the brief introduction, Googlezon jumps right into what everyone wants to hear: (legal) web content can NOT be blocked or slowed by an internet service provider, for any reason. Consumers can use any (legal) web application, connect any (legal) web devices to their computers, and basically do any (legal) thing they want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else or the internet itself. In addition, ISPs would be beholden to “Transparency” rules, which would require them to truthfully tell their potential and current customers about the offers, benefits, and the details of their specific internet plan “in plain language.” Which basically means you’ll have another “Terms and Conditions” to accept without reading.

Now, here’s where the debate over semantics and the fear mongering starts. Googlezon’s proposal continues, discussing what it calls “additional online services.” These services are only vaguely defined:

Additional online services would have to be distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband
Internet access service.

This section of the proposal states that if, and only if, an ISP meets the above criteria (not that they’d have a choice), they would be able to offer “additional online services” and these specific services can be prioritized. Uh oh.

Now, there are two ways to interpret this. The first, which is the interpretation taken by most technology blogs, is that Googlezon is going against everything they have ever said in the past and promoting a tiered internet system, much like television, which has basic cable and pay channels. Once this happens, consumers will have to opt in to certain, more expensive packages. You will no longer be able to go to Hulu unless you purchase an expensive TV and Movie package. All your favorite gaming websites will be extremely slow or blocked unless you opt into a special gaming package. Any website that’s worth anything would become part of a package, leaving “basic” internet a lonesome place, full of spam and boring stuff no one wants.

Or maybe, just maybe, Google doesn’t want to fuck itself over and ruin it’s reputation. Let’s pause and take a closer look at Google’s vision of the future of the internet and computing in general. At the 2010 I/O conference, Google introduced some pretty innovative ideas about computing: ideas completely different from what both Apple and Microsoft have been predicting for years. In Google’s vision of the computer’s future, the internet itself would replace computer operating systems. Choosing your browser would be like choosing Windows 7, Apple’s Snow Leopard or Ubuntu. The internet, thanks to HTML5, would become application rich rather than full of simple websites with mostly pictures and text. Remember the Google PacMan homepage? That was Google saying, “Hey! Look what I can do! This will be the future of the internet!” This PacMan game was made available to practically all Google users, no matter what browser they were using, what plug ins they had installed by using absolutely no flash whatsoever. Even Firefox is rearranging their entire web browsing layout for Firefox 4 in anticipation of these extremely powerful web applications.

So when Googlezon refers to “additional online services,” there’s a possibility they’re actually still talking about the same things they’ve been talking about all along. Having “additional online services” could mean that you can purchase a web application that makes your entire computer (including all your programs and documents) available on any computer you happen to be on, with no additional software install required. And if you want to open Final Cut Pro or play World of Warcraft, these applications would load immediately, whereas Wikipedia would load at our current broadband speed. Or possibly faster, since broadband speeds are only going to increase as the years pass.

The second part of the open Internet proposal that has everyone’s panties in a twist is the section on “wireless broadband” aka internet on your cellphone or similar device. The proposal states that because of the “unique technical and operational characteristics” of wireless internet, and the fact that new innovations are happening every day, wireless broadband is not to be regulated the same way as traditional broadband. The proposal asks that wireless internet be subject to the Transparency regulations, and that’s it. Once a year these wireless internet regulations would be assessed and changed if necessary.

People are very much up in arms about this one. In a comment on Google’s blog post about the Proposals, one commenter writes:

Way to find a loophole in Net Neutrality via wireless, Google. “We will NOT prioritize our content (unless it’s on wireless which is the future of networking…).”

This post seems to imply that Google was just waiting for a chance to exploit the system, although it is unclear any motivation Google has to promote tiered internet. People online seem to think that Google would some how benefit from a tiered internet plan, even though they’re not an internet service provider and they offer most of their services completely free of charge. It’s not like they released a little mobile operating system called Android, which is completely open source and a great alternative to Apple’s more restrictive iPhone. Oh wait, they did.

The fact is, mobile broadband is completely different than traditional broadband. You know that $60 GPS application you just purchased? That’s an “additional online service.” I, for one, wouldn’t mind if my GPS application on my phone gets information faster than my web browser, especially since I paid for the GPS application expecting it to function properly. And don’t forget about all the other applications on your phone that use internet services.

As an example, let’s use a brand new feature on Apple’s new iPhone 4: FaceTime. FaceTime allows users to video chat, face to face, through their cell phone. Currently, this feature is only available for people connecting to the Internet via wifi and not through 3G network service. It’s important to note that in this instance, wifi is traditional broadband, while the 3G network is wireless broadband.

Since wireless broadband technology is advancing so quickly, FaceTime may soon be available through 3G rather than exclusively wifi. Using FaceTime on the 3G network would be considered an “additional online service.” As a result, AT&T (or whatever network the iPhone is on) would legally be allowed to ensure that consumers who purchased the iPhone 4 could use the FaceTime feature without loading problems. The internet may load a little slower in comparison (but not too slow, otherwise you’d have a lot of angry customers and angry customers are bad for business). That being said, when I say that the internet may “load a little slower,” I’m taking into account the speed increase that would be required to handle FaceTime over the 3G network. Not to mention 4G (which is still far off in the future, despite any claims by current networks).

I will admit, all the ideas I just expressed are speculation, the same as all the other blog posts on the subject. Which is exactly why the details in the wireless broadband section needed to be left out of the proposal. No one knows what new cell phone innovation is going to come next, so to set too many rules and regulations now would put a cap on innovation and potential. By going back and reviewing these technological advancements on a yearly basis, we would allow creation as well as proper regulation against unfair practices.

What it All Means

In the last section of the Googlezon proposal, it is discussed how the FCC would be the regulating body to ensure that ISPs aren’t finding any loop holes or taking advantage of their customers. This would give power back into a (hopefully) unbiased organization, something that the Comcast court decision took away. This is a good thing.

With the internet becoming more and more essential to many people’s day to day lives, Net Neutrality has become an extremely sensitive issue. There is a lingering fear, somewhere in the background, that everything we know and love about the internet will just disappear one day, and there will be nothing anyone can do about it. This fear is somehow trapped in our global subconscious, and it rears its ugly head every time there is an attempt at change, even if it is the next logical evolutionary step of the internet. Take a look at the downfall of Google Wave. Despite being a logical evolutionary step for email, people were reluctant to change, and we can now wave goodbye to Google Wave.

What we really need is critical thinking. We need room for innovation. We need regulation so we don’t have a company like BP spilling oil all over the internet. Simply ignoring the situation and assuming everything is going to stay the same, always, is naïve. Responding to the Googlezon open Internet proposal with anger and fear is similar to the Record Industry getting mad at the cassette tape. Change is coming, and instead of standing on the corner of the street with a sign reading “The End Is Near,” let’s take a look at how these changes might realistically help or harm us in the long run.

I may be completely wrong in everything I’ve just wrote. Maybe Google and Verizon will somehow take over the internet and in five years there will be nothing left. Maybe the government will use these recent court cases as a means to block sites like WikiLeaks and The Pirate Bay. Hell, they’ve already started taking domains offline.

But, according to the Googlezon proposal, it doesn’t look like Google and Verizon are in cahoots with anyone wishing to censor the internet. On the contrary, they’re looking to set up a system to protect the right’s of the internet in an ever changing world. Maybe you interpreted the proposal in a completely different way than me. You could be right.

Before we start freaking out, let’s make sure we have our facts straight. Speculation is just unbecoming.

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