When Google points at phone carriers such as Verizon and AT&T and complains they are blocking access to applications, content and services, we tend to listen. Look, it's a bird, it's a plane... No, it's Google, swooping in as defenders of the Internet faithful.
We as a nation are so, so tired of Ma Bell and its descendants holding us hostage, first on landlines, and now on wireless devices. We've come to despise phone carriers and hold them up as the pinnacles of greed and what is wrong with Corporate America. Phone carriers bad; Web service providers good.
No surprise, then, in the backlash against AT&T for arguing that Google is getting away with some of the same things carriers are explicitly denied in network neutrality principles that promote competition among providers of networks, applications, services and content.
As I wrote Sept. 26, AT&T Sept. 25 sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission protesting Google's blocking of telephone calls from consumers who use its Google Voice service to call phone numbers with inflated access charges in certain rural areas.
AT&T argued that by blocking these calls, Google reduces its access expenses, giving it an advantage phone carriers are prevented from enjoying and thus skewering the competition principles in U.S. network neutrality laws.
Google Voice is not a phone service in the grand tradition of those provided by AT&T, Verizon, et al. It does not span endpoint to endpoint. You cannot pick up your landline or wireless phone and directly call your mom's landline or mobile phone and have her pick up.
So, what is Google Voice? Google Voice is a Web-based phone management service the search engine offers to let users funnel all of their phone calls via one new number to work, home and mobile phones.
I've used Google Voice. It's a fine service, and while it dallies in the realm of phone services, it does not go the last mile, which is why Google's telecom lawyer Richard Whitt argued that Google Voice is a free Internet application and is not subject to common carrier laws.
Moreover, because Google Voice does not enable users to call directly from one phone to the next--users need an existing landline or mobile phone to use it--the application is not intended to be a replacement for traditional phone services. Finally, he said Google Voice is currently invitation-only, serving a limited number of users. Whitt wrote:
"The FCC's open Internet principles apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers--not the creators of Web-based software applications. Even though the FCC does not have jurisdiction over how software applications function, AT&T apparently wants to use the regulatory process to undermine Web-based competition and innovation."
Something doesn't feel right about that. Whitt isn't defending the fact that Google Voice blocks calls, which he admitted to earlier in his post. He basically said, hey, we're not a phone carrier. There aren't laws forbidding us from doing these things, so don't get mad at us because the rules don't apply to us. That reads like classic misdirection.
But AT&T claims that even if Google Voice is a Web app, Google would still be subject to the FCC's Internet Policy Statement, whose fourth principle states that "consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers." Whitt doesn't challenge that.
Perhaps the rules should be amended so that Web applications like Google Voice can't get the advantages phone carriers are denied. We spend so much time worrying about how carriers are getting over on us, that maybe it's time we looked at how Google could be sneaking in the back door.
Google is really splitting hairs with Google Voice when it should be accorded the same treatment as a phone service. Why should Google Voice get a pass just because it doesn't connect the last mile in phone service? In many other ways, Google Voice emulates phone services, as AT&T noted:
"Google Voice includes a calling platform that offers unified communications capabilities and a domestic/international audio bridging telecommunications service that, with the assistance of a local exchange carrier known as Bandwidth.com, provides the IP-in-the-middle connection for calls between traditional landline and/or wireless telephones."
Google can't have it both ways. It can't shout open access from the rooftops and then be above reproach for blocking calls the phone carriers are prohibited from blocking. Google is craftily offering voice services as a Web application unfettered by rules and regulations that apply to broadband carriers.
Whitt's post rubbed carriers' noses in the gray areas that free it to do what it wants. Don't shrug your shoulders and smugly act like you can get away with a practice just because you don't fall under the domain of regulations that fail to keep up with the pace of innovation in this country.
I am so in the minority here! Believe me, I recognize it. Many of you left comments castigating AT&T as the root of all evil.
The first comment from Fred Richards notes:
"AT&T is an infrastructure provider. Google is a content provider. AT&T wants control of content because they control the infrastructure. The internet does not work like this. If AT&T gets their way, they will make many many things artificially scarce, to artificially inflate prices. They are really, really grasping for straws in this argument."
"Didn't AT&T claim innocence just a few weeks ago regarding the Google app running on the iPhone? This is nothing more than a power play by an aging giant that was too slow to capitalize on the new internet market. I do like the showmanship though..."
That sparks another idea: Perhaps AT&T did this to score points with Apple, a little tit-for-tat gamesmanship.
"AT&T charges for their services to make a profit. The Google service is free of charge. Google is not taking anyone's money and then restricting a customer unfairly. If anyone objects to any restrictions placed on something they get for FREE, they can move to a traditional commercial product that they must pay for. As technology progressed to provide huge cost reductions for telephony infrastructure, telcos continued to charge high rates to greatly enhance their profits instead of delivering this cost savings to the consumer. AT&T has always been one of the biggest eye-gougers in that respect. They'll attack anything that threatens their predatory company policies."
I think this misses the issue and raises another one. Does "free" mean Web services providers should be exempt from competition regulations? Then perhaps the FCC should account for free, too.
Here's the rub of your comments: AT&T is a big, greedy corporate machine, a venerable old greedy gobbler of green from user data fees. The greedy, lone Apple iPhone carrier trying to thwart Google because they don't like its stance on network neutrality. In fact, most carriers are reviled because they are constantly resisting net neutrality. Also, lots of people dislike AT&T because of the shaky service.
Google is outflanking an outdated system that needs to evolve to account for Web applications. I realize FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is reworking net neut. I won't get mad at Google, nor will I stop using Google Voice, but Google should have kept its mouth shut on this one. Whitt's blog post only underscored how unlevel the playing field is in net neutrality.
We shouldn't let Google get away with practices we spend so much time correcting carriers. It's not the method that matters, it's the practice. No one should be allowed to block calls, or everyone should.
Google is just giving carriers ammunition, and possibly, undermining its own arguments about fair competition in network neutrality.