Any agreement between business foes Verizon Communications Inc. and Google Inc. should raise a red flag for those concerned with the public interest.
In matters regarding information technology, the public is best served when there are competitors tearing at one another’s throats. The Federal Communications Commission and Congress, unfortunately, act more as protectors of the free flow of commerce than as countervailing influences against corporate power.
So it is with suspicion that we should view the legislative framework announced Tuesday by the two corporate superpowers. Two items in particular raise immediate concern.
First, Google has given up on the concept of network neutrality when it comes to wireless service. Network neutrality is the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.
Cell phone companies won’t move off that point. They argue that there is simply not enough room on wireless networks to allow ungoverned usage – there is only so much radio spectrum to go around, after all.
The second area of concern is the position on wireline broadband service.
Google, which relies on network owners like Verizon to deliver its ads, has been the most high-profile proponent of network neutrality principles while companies like Verizon, AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. have fought against them.
The companies say that under the framework, wireline broadband providers will not be able to “discriminate against or prioritize lawful Internet content.” That includes “paid prioritization.” This goes straight to the heart of network neutrality issue – a promise that there will not be a super-fast Internet for rich corporations and a pokey, slow Internet for the rest of us.
But only a few paragraphs later, the framework appears to contradict itself.
It says broadband providers will be allowed to offer “additional, differentiated online services, in addition to the Internet access and video services” as long as they are not designed to “circumvent the rules.” What, exactly, might those services be? How about a fast lane for special, deep-pocketed customers?
The “joint policy proposal” between the two companies is not government policy. That’s because at the moment, there is no government policy. The FCC has done a lot of listening, but no regulating. And Congress, as it leaves for vacation and prepares for midterm elections, has been idle.
Will the government act on the most important information technology policy question of the era? Or will it leave the debate to corporate America?