The first thing that sprang to mind when I read about Google and Verizon getting all buddy-buddy in their negotiations to provide "premium" Internet services based on content was the old saw about selling the Brooklyn Bridge. If the initial New York Times story got it right (though both Verizon and Google deny it), then that's exactly what's happening: They're selling out the Internet, an entity that neither company owns.
Much has been written about Net neutrality, with the big ISPs claiming that legislation enforcing the current status quo would stifle innovation and create undue hardship for the poor suffering carriers. On the other side are reality and those pesky little things called facts.
[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Read Paul Venezia's classic analysis of Lawrence Lessig's speech on U.S. telecoms vs. their European counterparts. | Robert X. Cringely weighs in on the Google/Verizon flirtation. ]
One of the most significant facts is that the big ISPs got where they are in large part due to taxpayer dollars. The government has handed out billions to the carriers over the years for network improvements and to jump-start broadband Internet access in rural areas. The carriers have been there with their wheelbarrows to catch all that money -- and then they turn around and decide they need to fleece us all over again under the guise of preferred content. (Meanwhile, their long march to bring broadband to rural areas has been very, very slow.)
So Google, the don't-be-evil company, and Verizon, a company whose claim to virtue seems less plausible, are clearly up to something. We just don't know what it is yet. Here are some possibilities:
1. Google and Verizon are close to an unpleasant deal
Google and Verizon are certainly in bed together in the mobile arena, so it stands to reason that they're getting closer in other areas as well. If the reports are true, then Google is busy violating its motto and trying to make the first move to turn the Internet into cable TV. Google may be doing this because it views the recent rulings on the FCC's oversight of the Internet as the first water over the dam and is positioning itself to benefit from the ensuing evisceration of the Internet. Or, who knows, Google may be playing the key role in this situation by building the path over which the rest of the carriers and content providers will trample in an attempt to hose the consumer.
2. Google and Verizon are definitely in talks, but it's not quite what you think
Perhaps Google's angle is to work with Verizon to allow for artificial constraints in mobile data, not broadband data. In this case, they may think that they're saving the broadband world from the ravages of tiered services by acquiescing on the mobile front -- an area that is apparently in disarray, thanks to the dismal networks constructed by the U.S. wireless companies. They're offering to amputate a leg, say, in exchange for keeping the damage at bay. While it may seem like a noble undertaking, it still establishes a dangerous precedent.
3. Google and Verizon are not talking yet, but they're thinking about it
Maybe some flirting has been going on between Beauty and the Beast, but they're a little concerned about what the townsfolk might think. So they arranged for this leak to occur and are watching carefully to see if anyone notices or cares. Google will take the bigger PR hit here since Verizon already has a poor reputation for these kind of shenanigans, but the outcry (if any) will allow Google to calibrate its actions for whenever such discussions truly come to pass. It's a shot across the bow, so to speak.
4. Google and Verizon aren't talking at all
This seems the least likely of all. There's too much substance to these rumors, and the FCC's subsequent abandonment of Net neutrality talks must be predicated on something. Maybe it's not Google and Verizon -- maybe it's Google and Comcast, or Microsoft and AT&T, or any other mix of large technology companies that believe that the Internet is their playground and we all must pay ever-increasing prices to access what is and has always been a public resource.
Any one of these possibilities may be true, but it's unlikely we'll know until it's too late. Taken at face value, the positions of the big ISPs seem fairly benign, their arguments make a tiny little bit of sense. Someone with the knowledge of how these things actually work and with the knowledge of how completely untrustworthy the big carriers really are can see right through those arguments to the nasty underbelly of what they're actually shooting for: the ability to strong-arm customers into paying exorbitant rates for something that belongs to everyone. This is exactly why monopolies are bad.
We've been teetering on the brink of a tiered Internet for quite some time now, and it seems that the entrenched corporations are pushing us closer and closer to the edge. Once the Internet loses its balance, it's unlikely to ever recover.
This story, "Verizon, Google and the Future of the Net" was originally published by InfoWorld.