Google / Verizon: Hardwire Neutrality to Old Networks

Good news! Sony and Panasonic would like you to know they now support VHS neutrality! The two companies would like the government to ensure that no future VCR manufacturer can impose a fee on the movie studios or tape manufacturers or make the tapes of a particular movie studio look better on your TV, just because that studio paid a kickback. Your right to watch whatever VHS tape you want is assured from here til eternity.

If the idea of protecting freedom and competition in a dying platform sounds ridiculous, then what about the joint policy proposal for an open Internet that Google and Verizon released earlier this week? If you think the proposal is a victory for Net Neutrality, the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally by ISPs, you didn't read the fine print. In their framework document and the subsequent editorial their CEOs posted in the Washington Post, Google and Verizon start by saying all the right things about consumer rights and the freedom to innovate, but then say those rights should only apply to the fading technology of wired broadband, not the all-wireless future that's halfway here.

The very first key element of the legislative framework is "Consumer Protections," guaranteeing the right of end users to send and receive all lawful content of their choice, run all legal applications, and use all legal devices online. The next element in their proposal is that ISPs not be allowed to discriminate against any lawful content, application, or service.  After that, the companies ask that ISPs conform to principles of transparency about how they manage their traffic so users know exactly what's going on behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, on the second page of the proposal the companies take back what they said on the first page. Just take a gander at this (bold is mine):

Wireless Broadband: Because of the unique technical and operational characteristics of wireless networks, and the competitive and still-developing nature of wireless broadband services, only the transparency principle would apply to wireless broadband at this time. The U.S. Government Accountability Office would report to Congress annually on the continued development and robustness of wireless broadband Internet access services.

Just in case you think that might be a typo, Google/Verizon said the same thing on the Google Public Policy blog yesterday, where they stated that "we both recognize that wireless broadband is different from the traditional wireline world, in part because the mobile marketplace is more competitive and changing rapidly. 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, except for the transparency requirement."

So as we continue riding down the cobblestone street of wired Internet access, using a horse and buggy made of Ethernet cables, we'll have the right to view whatever content we want and businesses that want to set up shop along the cobblestone street will be free to do so. That's great, but what about the paved road of wireless broadband? Is it supposed to be nothing more than a wild west mining town where the mine company makes all its own laws and can break them?

If  losing your right to see whatever content you want on your phone or your 3G card doesn't bother you because you do most of your surfing from home or work, think again. Clear is already offering home and business mobile broadband packages that rely solely on 4G connectivity. How long do you think it will be before wired Internet joins wired phones on the scrap heap of history?

Google and Verizon are right to ask for that the FCC be given the authority to enforce net neutrality, but they couldn't be more wrong when they ask to have wireless services exempted from that oversight. The Internet is a public service and a public utility. Whether that service is delivered through wires or over the air is irrelevant. The fact that the wireless marketplace is growing rapidly is an even bigger reason to make sure the pace of innovation, competition, and free speech keep up with it. As Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu wrote in the New York Times:

No one can ever guarantee that business is fair, but I do think we, as the public who paid for the Internet in the first place, can demand that it remain as open and fair to competition and innovation as we can make it. It has worked pretty well so far.

The principles of open VHS still apply in a Blu-ray future.

Avram Piltch
Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.