Google and Verizon hadn’t even finished their press conference about net neutrality before the anguished accusations started. Google, the complainers said, had abandoned its principles. The company had turned to the Dark Side. The plan was a threat to liberty, a free Internet, and all that’s good and wholesome in the world.
Now that the plan has been public for a few hours, the concerns are becoming more thoughtful and less reactive, but they persist. For some, the biggest issue is the segregation of wireless and wire line access to the Internet. The reason given by Google and Verizon in their press conference-that wireless is a new and highly competitive technology-doesn’t sit well with many people or with many public interest groups. Just how restrictive would the wireless Internet be? many wonder.
The second area of concern is the provision in the Google-Verizon proposal that would allow networks to provide their own premium content that’s not part of the open Internet. Critics wonder, Would this create three Internets? Would there be the traditional Internet, the more restrictive wireless internet and a closed commercial Internet as well? And if there’s a closed commercial Internet, what would happen to the open Internet? Would it wither away?
Tanya Snyder, DC Editor for Pacifica Radio’s Free Speech Radio News, described the concerns of the public interest groups she covers. Their fear is that some people will be treated differently from others. Right now, she said, “The Internet is a level playing field.” She said that this issue is especially important for what Snyder calls “marginalized voices” such as people of color, or people with progressive political views. She said that these groups fear there will be a fast lane on the Internet for those who can pay and a slow lane for everyone else.
There’s also the part about passing only legal content on the Internet, and about network management on the Internet. Concerns about legal content have been voiced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which asks, What constitutes legal? While I haven’t heard anyone proposing that content that sexually exploits children should be allowed on the Internet, there are legitimate questions about copyrighted material and fair use.
Would network providers be able to block downloading of copyrighted material when its ultimate use is allowed by Fair Use provisions of the copyright law? Or what about material that’s legal in one jurisdiction but not in another? Would Christian religious sites be shut down because such material is illegal in some Muslim nations? Where is the line here?
Network management is a little different because it can mean a lot of things. From a technical standpoint, there needs to be some management for a network to be used effectively, but what constitutes proper management? Could a network provider block content from outside because it was concerned about bandwidth demands? Remember, this is the issue that got Comcast in trouble with the FCC, whose regulatory action was later overturned by the courts.
Its Time for Industry, Public Interest Counterproposals
Another set of issues has more to do with perception than it does with the actual proposal from Google and Verizon. Part of the perception problem comes because of a highly erroneous story in the New York Times just before the announcement took place. The content of the Times’ story was picked up by a number of major outlets, none of which actually checked its accuracy.
Now that the actual proposal is out, and it’s clear that the earlier stories were largely wrong, you’d think that would end the problem, but perceptions don’t work that way. Instead, people read the Times story, and then the stories about the Google-Verizon proposal, and they’re confused. The proposal itself isn’t exactly the clearest net neutrality document ever released, and neither Google nor Verizon has really made a public outreach effort to make sure people understand what they’re actually proposing.
Adding to all of this confusion is the lack of any response from the FCC or Congress. While the agreement on the proposal is only that-a proposal from two companies as to how they’d like to see the Internet regulated-it’s being treated as if it’s the final word. The next step from Washington needs to be to clarify what the FCC or Congress thinks about the proposal, and to explain what the next steps might be.
Unfortunately, such an explanation isn’t likely from Congress, since that body is in recess. While there will be a few breaks to have hearings or maybe even vote on legislation over the next four months, the reality is you won’t hear anything from Congress on net neutrality until after the new Congress is seated in January. The FCC isn’t in recess, but comments from the commission on such proposals rarely show up. Instead, the FCC quietly takes input and then issues a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Only when the NPRM shows up does the FCC make public comments.
So the angst and consternation by the public interest groups is not only understandable, it’s inevitable. There’s only one proposal out there; nobody really knows what the status of the proposal might be and they’re not sure they like it. In many cases, they’re sure they don’t like it. According to Snyder, a number of public interest groups are saying that the agreement (or “deal” as some call it) is much worse than they feared it would be.
Sadly, this condition will persist. There hasn’t been much movement by other major players in the net neutrality sphere to come up with their own proposals, and to date only AT&T has commented on the Google-Verizon proposal (AT&T likes it). So the obvious question is, Where are the alternate proposals?
Perhaps now is a great time for the various public interest groups with an interest in net neutrality to have their own press conferences and announce their own proposals. The FCC might as well have some choices before it issues that NPRM, and Congress might as well have a list of people and groups go give testimony at committee hearings, if they ever happen.