Update on 8/9/10 at 3:45pm ET:
It's official: Google and Verizon have teamed up and introduced their own net neutrality plan. In short, the plan makes a vague promise to maintain the Web's longstanding principles of net neutrality, but leaves open the possibility of a deregulated wireless framework.
What does this all mean? For starters, it's already suspected that any plan by the two Internet giants could set the bar for further negotiations by the FCC. Secondly, several studies have hinted at the fact that users of color heavily rely on mobile technology to access the Internet. Which means that both companies have left the window wide open to charge higher fees to mobile users, many of whom already can't afford home-based broadband connections.
Today's news means that Google's flip-flopping on its previous promise to maintain a truly open Internet.
Join us in telling them to stop being evil.
Uh oh. After nearly a year of closed door negotiations, it looks like Google and Verizon are teaming up to craft their own "pay for play" broadband agreement. Although Google's denying the claims, the New York Times reported yesterday that a deal could be announced as early as next week, despite the FCC's ongoing efforts to create stronger regulations for Internet service providers. The news has called into question just how much power FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski can yield in the absence of regulations telecom companies seem determined to resist.
The two companies have been in talks and are reportedly close to a deal that would prevent Verizon from blocking some Internet traffic, but allow it to prioritize others if customers pay higher monthly rates. For instance, YouTube, which is owned by Google, could pay a higher rate to Verizon to ensure that its videos are delivered to users at high speeds. Open Internet advocates fear that the same luxury won't extend to users who can't afford the higher rates but still want to insert themselves into the national dialogue, instead of just being on the receiving end of consumer marketing.
It's not clear that the talks will result in a deal, or that any agreement would extend beyond the two companies. But, as the New York Times warns, a dangerous precedent could be set:
Such an agreement could overthrow a once-sacred tenet of Internet policy known as net neutrality, in which no form of content is favored over another. In its place, consumers could soon see a new, tiered system, which, like cable television, imposes higher costs for premium levels of service.
The news is a major blow to media justice advocates who've waged a struggle to maintain fairness on the Internet. While the FCC released its wide-ranging National Broadband Plan last spring with hopes of soon closing the digital divide, there's been widespread disagreement on exactly how to do it, particularly in light of the FCC's battle to regain its regulatory authority.
Opponents of net neutrality regulations, including many high-ranking democratic members of Congress, contend that Internet service providers will be less inclined to build faster networks in poor communities for fewer profits if forced to do so while following regulations that keep the Web open. Media justice activist Malkia Cyrill calls it "digital redlining." Service providers, including AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, argue that regulation would stifle competition and keep monthly costs up.
Consumer advocates say that competition has already been driven out of the industry over the past decade and that this is perhaps the FCC's final opportunity to formalize open access principles that built the Internet.
"What is good for Google and Verizon is not necessarily good for innovation and competition on the Internet," Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, told Politico.
One recent study by the Social Science Research Council found that connection cost is just one factor that keeps poor folks of color away from home-based broadband access. Even when service is available, researchers found that users are saddled with poor quality service and hidden fees.
Google and Verizon aren't strangers to one another. Even though the deal reportedly would not extend to wireless services, Google's popular Android operating system powers many Verizon smart phones. The two submitted joint comments to the FCC earlier this year and co-wrote a blog post to users that outlined where they'd found common ground:
Verizon and Google might seem unlikely bedfellows in the current debate around network neutrality, or an open Internet. And while it's true we do disagree quite strongly about certain aspects of government policy in this area -- such as whether mobile networks should even be part of the discussion -- there are many issues on which we agree...Policymakers sometimes fall prey to the temptation to write overly detailed rules, attempting to predict every possible scenario and address every possible concern. This can have unintended consequences.
However, as far back as 2006, consumer advocates have tried to debunk the notion that their arguments are built primarily on speculation by pointing to the introduction of specialized Internet routers that already discriminate against certain kinds of traffic.
"The fate of the Internet is too large a matter to be decided by negotiations involving two companies, even companies as big as Verizon and Google, or even the six companies and groups engaged in other discussions at the FCC on similar topics," Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, told The Hill. She added that she's in favor of a public process instead of private negotiations behind closed doors.
Even though Google has taken criticism recently over privacy concerns, the company's new stance on net neutrality is surprising to some. They've generally maintained a slightly more progressive stance on Internet policy issues in the past than most media giants. In 2006, CEO Eric Schmidt wrote a letter urging users to lobby Congress in favor of net neutrality, and a couple years later, the company released tools for users to measure the speeds of their Internet connections. The alleged deal appears to be a lukewarm compromise from a company with enough clout to push for more.
"Such abuse of the open Internet would put to final rest the Google mandate to 'do no evil,'" Josh Silver, chief executive of he advocacy group Free Press, told The Hill.
Other major Internet players, including AT&T and Skype, remained in closed door negotiations with the FCC until its Chairman Julius Genachowski called off negotiations Thursday afternoon.