Google and Verizon’s Deceptive Statement

Google and Verizon’s “Joint policy statement for an open Internet” reminds me of Congressional legislation with names like “Clean Water Act” and “Clear Skies Act.” Too often, these acts seem intended to accomplish the opposite of what their names claim. The idea is to hope the name fools the the public into supporting legislation that they would otherwise oppose.

And so it is with this joint Internet statement. Much of it is devoted to touting the companies’ unswerving support for an open Internet and principles of “Net neutrality.” The two companies proudly assert: “This new nondiscrimination principle includes a presumption against prioritization of Internet traffic - including paid prioritization.”

It isn’t until you get to the sixth of the statement’s “seven key elements” that you uncover the true nature of this Trojan Horse: “In recognition of the still-nascent nature of the wireless broadband marketplace, under this proposal we would not now apply most of the wireline principles to wireless.”

In other words, almost all of the proposed protections for Internet traffic would apply only to the “wireline” Internet. In the domain of the “wireless” Internet, Verizon and Google would be free to discriminate as much as they liked.

This is a great “compromise” for Verizon. While their Internet business is not entirely wireless (they have their own DSL service), wireless is the side of their bread that gets the butter. It’s not much of a sacrifice for them to concede net neutrality to wireline networks. Let Comcast fight the wireline fight. The policy helps Google as well. Given the company’s immense resources, they would be a prime beneficiary of any special preference. In the end, the principles espoused in this statement could help eradicate Google competitors unable to afford “favored nation” treatment.

What’s the rationale for this wireless exception? There is none. The companies claim the exception is needed because the wireless market is “different” and “more competitive and changing rapidly.” Exactly why such characteristics require a different set of rules is not explained.

Why is it not explained? Because there is no good explanation. Verizon and Google simply hope to slip this disaster-in-the-making under the radar — in the guise of supporting Internet neutrality.

I expect this sort of deviousness from Verizon. I am more surprised at Google. I guess it’s time to take off my rose-colored glasses. All publicly-traded companies need to answer to stockholders more than the general public — and thus need to maximize their profit, growth, and competitive advantage at almost any cost. Google is no exception.

What might this proposal mean to you if it became a reality? Imagine this scenario as one example: You are using Safari on your iPhone to check comments to your latest blog entry. At the moment, you are at a free Wi-Fi hotspot at Starbucks. All is going well. After leaving the store, you continue your checking, attempting to load a second page of comments. As you reach beyond the range of Starbuck’s Wi-Fi, the iPhone switches to 3G. You have come to expect that 3G access may mean a slower loading of Web pages. But what happens is significantly worse than you expect. Loading of your blog page slows to a crawl. Why? Because your mobile phone carrier has decided to give your Web page a low priority.

It could get worse. Your mobile carrier could decide to block your blog’s host from loading on its service at all — unless your host ponies up a fee. A different carrier may be more generous, allowing your Web page to load unrestricted for no fee. The end result could be a world where your blog loads at dramatically different rates — if it loads at all — depending on the carrier. Or where your blog loads at a very different rate from someone else’s blog even on the same carrier — because of carrier-imposed restrictions. This would be a crazy world.

You may partially dismiss my concerns on the grounds that most Internet access today is through wirelines. Don’t be lulled. In the years ahead, 3G and other wireless forms of Internet access are certain to increase their share of the Internet pie.

You may claim that I am “catastrophising” here, describing scenarios that, while technically possible, are unlikely to ever become reality. Perhaps. But as long as nothing in the proposal prohibits such outcomes, I am not ready to dismiss them.

I can accept the need for some potential preferential treatment of Internet access. There may be sites that qualify as a “911” level of importance — and thus deserve special priority. Additionally, a case could be made for certain sites (that require a lot of bandwidth) to get a boost that would not be needed for low bandwidth sites. Regardless, I would not trust companies like Google and Verizon to be in charge of making these decisions — not unless you want the proverbial foxes in charge of the hen house.