Net Neutrality: Are Google and Verizon Waffling?

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Is Google changing its stance on the principles of net neutrality?

That's what The New York Times recently suggested when it reported that Google and Verizon are nearing an agreement where Google would not oppose the broadband provider if it wants to charge Website owners a fee for the privilege of delivering content more quickly to end users. If true, the Google-Verizon pact has the potential of doing an end run around the Federal Communication Commission's recent attempts to preserve an open Internet.

Google and Verizon have denied the Times' report. Verizon posted a public comment on its blog saying the Times report "fundamentally misunderstands our purpose ...our goal is an Internet policy framework that ensures openness and accountability, and incorporates specific FCC authority, while maintaining investment and innovation. To suggest this is a bu
siness arrangement between our companies is entirely incorrect." Verizon's statement did not explicitly deny it was negotiating with Google.

Meanwhile, a Google spokesperson recently told UK newspaper The Independent that Google has "not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google traffic." The search giant says it remains committed to an open Internet.

What is Net Neutrality?

At its core, net neutrality means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would be prohibited from slowing down Internet access speeds based on what you were doing online.

Activities like video streaming or peer-to-peer file sharing would have to be delivered to you at the same speed as less data-intensive functions like e-mail and basic Web browsing.

Implications for You

If the Times' report is true, this would mean that you would get fast access over a broadband connection only to Websites and online services that are willing to pay ISPs for speedy delivery. Websites that didn't pay would be slower to load and less usable.

The fear is that without net neutrality, new and innovative online businesses would not be able to pay the delivery costs to compete against larger Internet companies with deeper pockets like Amazon, Google, or Microsoft.

Schmidt Sings A Different Tune

While Google's assertion that it is committed to an open Internet may sound reassuring, recent statements by company CEO Eric Schmidt suggest otherwise. In fact, Schmidt appears to confirm the worst fears of open Internet advocates by redefining what net neutrality means.

London's Telegraph reportes Schmidt confirmed that Google had been trying for some time to come to an agreement with Verizon over the definition of net neutrality. Then Google's CEO said, "people get confused [about net neutrality]. What we mean is that if you have one data type, like video, you don't discriminate against one person's video in favor of another. It's OK to discriminate across different types [of data]," according to the Telegraph.

American Public Media's Marketplace explained Schmidt's position further in a report on Thursday. The public radio program reported, "Google could get behind the idea of one price for data that's traveling over the net. Another price for voice. Another price for movies. And maybe even another price for video games."

If these reports are accurate, they appear to contradict previous Google statements about net neutrality. In January, Google said on its public policy blog that the company supports a "principle that bans prioritizing Internet traffic based on the ownership (the who), [and] the source (the what) of the content or application." Other net neutrality advocates, such as the Open Internet Coalition, say net neutrality would stop ISPs "from imposing limits on usage based on the type or content of Internet traffic."

So what exactly did Schmidt mean when he said it was fine to discriminate across different types of traffic? Sure, most net neutrality advocates believe ISPs should have some ability to restrict data-intensive applications if the network is under threat of coming to a virtual stand still. But discrimination across different data types at all times has never been a principle of net neutrality. I have contacted Google about these seemingly conflicting statements and will update this post when the company responds.

Connect with Ian on Twitter (@ianpaul).

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