Reports that Google and Verizon have reached an agreement on how to handle Web traffic, coming up with their own solution to the long-running Net Neutrality debate, immediately sent public interest groups into a tailspin.
How can two big companies like Google and Verizon, with their own financial interests at stake, be trusted to come up with a framework for the Internet that will protect the public interests? The two companies, alongside many others large players with interests at stake, are participating in talks with the FCC about how to shape a broadband policy.
Get used to it. Last week at the Supernova conference in Philadelphia, Comcast's David Cohen, executive vice president of broadband, said the ecosystem of Internet players is in more agreement over regulation than any other time. The one common theme: These Internet giants are worried about the law of unintended consequences. “The unintended consequence of regulation could result in actions that retard investment and innovation,” he said. The fix is to handle these broadband policy issues on their own and collaborate with the FCC instead of being dictated to.
Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Google and Verizon had reached their own agreement, one that blocks Verizon from "selectively slowing Internet content that travels over its wires" but doesn't apply to Internet use over mobile phones. Bloomberg cited two unnamed people briefed by the companies and neither Google nor Verizon confirmed the report.
The news is reportedly set to be announced on Friday but that didn't stop public interest groups from crying foul right away. Josh Silver, President and CEO of Free Press, issued a statement that read, in part that "such abuse of the open Internet would put to final rest the Google mandate to ‘do no evil.' " Public Knowledge President Gigi B. Sohn said the agreement should be considered "meaningless." As a legal agreement, she said, it is not binding and as an agreement of principle, "it should not be taken as a template or basis for Congressional action."
Clearly, regulatory policy would trump any such agreement between two companies but allow me to offer a few points to ponder:
- Should Google and Verizon participate in Washington's debate over Broadband policy? Some of the public interest groups have called for the FCC to abandon talks with the large companies with business interests at stake. That's ridiculous. The FCC should continue to talk to as many players involved, especially the companies that will be investing in and innovating the technology that will drive broadband adoption and advancement.
- Can we really trust the government to get it right? Back in December 2008, President Obama appeared on a YouTube video to declare that "It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption" and called for the adoption of a National Broadband Plan. Sure, there have been some obstacles since then - notably, Comcast's victory in a suit that challenged FCC authority over it. If Washington wants to get it right, isn't it better to have those folks sitting on your side of the table, instead of on the other side, with their lawyers?
- Remember, the FCC doesn't have to adopt or event consider the Google-Verizon deal as it shapes policy. What Washington eventually gets around to deciding, both Google and Verizon will have to comply with.
- In the meantime, what's so bad about the two companies coming to an agreement? Until there's policy in place, it gives each of them an understanding of what they can and cannot do. Isn't that better than trying to guess what Washington will decide. And if the companies use the agreement to get one over on consumers, those same consumer interest groups will surely be watching, red flags ready to be thrown.