The Internet is a chaotic place with few rules, but there is one gold standard: Net neutrality.
Put simply, this concept promises that all pieces of online content should be treated the same. So it should, in theory, be just as easy for users to find and visit YouTube as it is to go to Craigslist. This means that neither site should be allowed to pay an Internet service provider to restrict the traffic flow to the other site, or speed up the flow of traffic to their own, nor should they be limited or favored by the service provider for any other reason.
This concept has long been the guiding philosophy of the Internet, but now two of the most influential and popular companies in the world are about to undermine it, along with their reputations.
Google (Stock Quote: GOOG) and Verizon (Stock Quote: VZ) announced Monday that they reached an agreement on a new set of guidelines, which they plan to suggest to the Federal Communications Commission in the hopes of protecting net neutrality going forward. According to their proposal, “For the first time, wireline broadband providers would not be able to discriminate against or prioritize lawful Internet content, applications or services in a way that causes harm to users or competition.”
To ensure this is the case, the policy, if enacted, would allow the FCC to penalize any Internet service provider who shows signs of favoring or limiting access to a particular site with a fine of as much as $2 million.
Yet, while this seems like a step in the right direction, The Huffington Post says the plan contains a “giant, enormous, science-fiction-quality loophole.” In fact, it contains two.
First and foremost, the policy would not apply to wireless Internet. So companies that provide Internet access through mobile phones would be permitted to give preferential treatment for one piece of online content or another. According to a joint statement issued by both companies, they chose not to include wireless in the proposal because they view it as a “still-nascent” platform that is “changing rapidly.” However, some have already pointed out that this is precisely the reason net neutrality needs to be established there now, because wireless is, in effect, the future of the Internet.
Beyond this, the proposal also leaves open the possibility that service providers could in fact prioritize some forms of online content over others if they require excessive amounts of bandwidth. According to Wired, “the Google/Verizon blueprint would grant content companies looking to deliver services that require too much bandwidth for the ‘regular’ Internet to do so in return for payment, via a second set of pipes.” In other words, this proposal would do exactly the opposite of what supporters of net neutrality want, creating a two-tiered Internet with a “fast lane” for specific online content.
The great irony is that Google has been a strong proponent of net neutrality in the past. Back in 2006, Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, issued an open letter to Congress calling to protect neutrality online. “Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody – no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional – has equal access,” he said. “But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can't pay.”
Instead, it turned out to be Google who dealt what could be the death blow to the Internet as we know it.
Ted Stevens would be proud.
Check out our roundup of questionable decisions Google has made in the past.
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