Why is Net Neutrality so difficult?


The way I understand Net (Internet) Neutrality, it’s pretty simple. Internet content should be able to go anywhere, and no commercial interest or government agency should be allowed to interfere with the free flow of information. Why is Net Neutrality so difficult?

The FCC has been ruminating over Net Neutrality for years now. In recent weeks, they’ve hosted closed-door meetings with major commercial broadband service providers. This week Google and Verizon came down from the mountain with a seven point proposal for Net Neutrality, called A Joint Policy Proposal for an Open Internet. Meanwhile, the FCC’s own talks were dissolved. Again, why is Net Neutrality so difficult?

Historically, Google has always championed Net Neutrality. Their four principles – Open Networks, Open Applications, Open Services and Open Devices – remain important guiding principles of the Internet. This week’s seven point proposal encapsulates these four, add two new ones proposed in the National Broadband Plan and by the FCC, plus one more. Let’s review them at them one at a time

First, make open principles enforcable (good!). Second, add an antidiscrimination principle (good!). Third, force service providers to explain their services clearly (good!) Fourth, give the FCC a clear mandate to regulate the Internet (which is currently in question, due to the the court ruling allowing Comcast to regulate what is on its private network, contradicting the FCC position that all Internet traffic be treated equally – so, good!). Fifth, allow for differentiated services (which promotes value added services – good, and it’s OK if some of them are paid or intended just for vertical markets). The seventh one favors extending the Universal Service Fund to the Internet (good).

The sixth proposal is troublesome, right from the get-go: “…we recognize that wireless broadband is different…” Think about it. Connectivity, to most people, is like water; people don’t think so much about how they are connected anymore. The only reason that wireless and wireline are being positioned differently is commercial, for bandwidth reasons – which LTE and WiMAX are poised to solve.

I will make no secret that I am a Net Neutrality advocate, but I’m not black-and-white about it. For example, service providers should be able to charge for premium content and that the activists are blind to this on purpose. But not be allowed, like Comcast, to bar traffic that they don’t like. Or like wireless providers, be given a “pass” essentially not to enforce Net Neutrality at all. Bandwidth is a temporary limitation in the long term, and Net Neutrality shouldn’t be confused with protection of intellectual property (pirated video distributed over P2P), which is a separate issue.

It all comes down to balancing corporate interests with the public interest, and those interests are not always aligned (shall we say politely). With Google’s Android and Chrome software being embedded in so many communications-savvy smart devices, and with Google TV on the horizon, Google is increasingly siding with its profit motive and doesn’t want to upset the media industry ecosystem. Especially when 97% of Google’s revenue comes from advertising.

Especially when Verizon’s latest Android-based smartphones are so successful, and especially since Motorola is reportedly building an iPad-like Android-based tablet for Verizon FiOS TV. No wonder Google appears to be compromising, and now I start to see why Net Neutrality is so difficult. Google has transformed from being a pure Internet company, into a platform for paid content.

Give the Google-Verizon proposal a few points for effort, but make Google stay after school to write on the board a thousand times: “I shall be true to my principles” and “I shall do no evil.” Hopefully, the FCC regains adequate spine to ignore clause number six.


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