Not so neutral after all?

The debate over net neutrality rose to prominence in 2005 when Ed Whitacre, then chief executive of US telecommunications company AT&T, said that Google was enjoying a “free ride” from Internet service providers (ISPs).

The web search giant and others like it were reaching millions of users over infrastructure that someone else had paid for, he said, and proposed that ISPs might one day charge web companies “carriage fees”.

Ever since then, Google has been a vocal proponent of net neutrality, the idea that ISPs should not be allowed to charge content providers for preferential traffic routing as this would create a “tiered Internet” and undermine the openness of the web.

So it came as some surprise when in July 2010, the New York Times reported that Google and US telco Verizon – which has also accused Google of “freeloading” in the past – had reached an agreement that would allow website producers to pay ISPs “to ensure that [their] content received priority as it made its way to consumers”.

Net neutrality advocates moved quickly to condemn the putative deal, as did the US’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC). “Any deal that doesn’t preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet for consumers and entrepreneurs will be unacceptable,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.

It later emerged that Google and Verizon had developed what they called ‘a joint policy proposal for an open Internet’, which they hope might inform US government policy.

In fact, the policy proposal called for greater sanctions against prioritising traffic, according to the content provider. “We agree that there should be a new, enforceable prohibition against discriminatory practices,” the companies said in the joint proposal.

But it also stipulated that ISPs should be allowed to offer new kinds of Internet-based services which may be subject to prioritisation. “Examples might include healthcare monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or
new entertainment and gaming options.”

The proposal also suggested that the principles of net neutrality might not apply to wireless broadband. “In recognition of the still-nascent nature of the wireless broadband marketplace, under this proposal we would not now apply most of the principles [of net neutrality] to wireless.”

Though not a complete volte face by Google, the proposal was nevertheless met with some criticism. “[It] is a mix of 90% of Verizon’s anti-net neutrality positions and only 10% Google’s pro-net neutrality positions,” Nicholas Economides, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, told the Washington Post.

More than anything, though, the proposal revealed the ever-widening complexity of regulating the Internet.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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