Note To Verizon And Google: Don't Ruin The Internet. Thanks.

Sept. 26, 2010
Do you like the internet? Do you appreciate being able to find what you need, from whoever best provides it? Do you enjoy having sites compete for your attention on the basis of customer value? Or, would you rather interact with the internet like you do ...

Do you like the internet? Do you appreciate being able to find what you need, from whoever best provides it? Do you enjoy having sites compete for your attention on the basis of customer value?

Or, would you rather interact with the internet like you do with cable television, where you pay too much for a service that doesn't suit your needs from a company that doesn't have to compete for your business on service or value?

If the internet changing sounds unbelievable, then you've not been paying attention to the net neutrality issue. (I haven't been paying enough attention either -- I've been focused on privacy issues, as regular readers know all too well, I'm sure.)

In case you haven't heard yet, there's a storm brewing off the coast of the internet that we know and love. At the eye of this storm is a recent bilateral pact between tech behemoth Google and telecom giant Verizon concerning "net neutrality" stipulating that wireless access to the internet will not, in the future, be subject to the same rules of neutrality governing wired networks. According to a recent Engadget article, as well as common sense, this distinction is of crucial importance because the dominant access technology of devices and services in the future will be wireless.

So you might be wondering what, exactly, is "net neutrality"? In essence, net neutrality means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) don't charge extra on the basis of content, applications, or services. In other words, when you access the internet -- whether on a desktop, laptop, or phone -- you get The Internet. The crazy, freewheeling, endlessly interesting democracy of ideas in which content providers compete on the basis of the value of their content in an "attention-centric" economy. If you're good, and people like what you produce, you can make a living. If you're not, you will find out soon enough.

A recent article at Bloomberg cites an example of what the opposite, an "anti-neutral internet", might look like as recently posed by the CEOs of Google and VerizonSchmidt and Seidenberg, respectively. In this innocuous vision, Verizon is paid a premium fee by opera fans for access to 3-D opera performances at higher speed and resolution than other content on Verizon's network. Such "content discrimination" is a violation of net neutrality.

This scenario posed by the CEO partners sounds fairly benign on its face. Higher-quality services for high art, and of course those *opera fans* will have the money to pay for it, right? What about when your favorite content gets bumped up to the premium layer and becomes inaccessible except for a constantly increasing "premium fee"? It's not like you have a choice of carriers -- you're locked into years-long plans with incredible disincentives to switch, and wireless is not exactly a competitive market to begin with.

Or, let's take the example they give and flip it -- what would have to get slowed down for the opera to speed up? And are consumers the only ones getting gouged here? I'd bet that the premium fees paid by opera fans would no doubt be matched on the other side by premium fees charged to that content provider to stream at the premium speed. So, users (like us) lose, and content providers (like me) also lose, as our content is slowed down to make way for whatever non-neutral cash cows are in Verizon's herd at the moment. "Buy 15 basic sites, plus for a limited time offer, get 5 more premium internet sites on your phone, for only 29.99 per month!"

Let's extend this example. Imagine having to shuck out 49.99 per month for access to a bundled package of 30 websites and 10 bucks more for every site after that. Imagine not having the money for the "premium" version of the web and having to wait twice as long as you do now for the same information while those with bigger budgets enjoy better access, information and speed. This is the vision of the non-neutral internet's future. And, on the content provider side, imagine watching as your site returns a "404 error" and won't load, while your corporate competition loads less-compelling content via the premium channel. Information superhighway, indeed.

Google's presence on the wrong side of this issue is surprising to say the least. In 2007, Google's $4.6 billion bid for the 700 MHz spectrum forced the FCC to come up with rules ensuring whoever won the bid would allow consumers to use any handset they wanted with any wireless carrier they wanted and to download any software they wanted. Verizon ended up winning the auction and suing the FCC, decrying the rules as "arbitrary and capricious". Google's response to Verizon's lawsuit read, in part, thus: "It's regrettable that Verizon has decided to use the court system to try to prevent consumers from having any choice of innovative services. Once again, it is American consumers who lose from these tactics." So what happened to the consumer-advocate, don't-be-evil Google? (Maybe someone could do a search for Google's principles?)

According to an excellent article in Wired magazine by Ryan Singel entitled "Why Google Became A Carrier-Humping, Net Neutrality Surrender Monkey", Google's billions of dollars of annual revenue simply wasn't enough to stand on first principles. According to Singel, Google could have leveraged its Android operating system used by numerous carriers on numerous smart phonesincluding Verizonto force the implementation of open internet principles, but didn't because it turned out to be more profitable to give in to the lure of millions of mini-computers generating advertising clicks with the Droid operating system.

Meanwhile, Verizon is a major player in the telecom industry, a system that's always been a darling of the regulators. According to Singel, the phone companies already have created an environment "artificial scarcity" where they don't have to compete on value or quality, but instead "carriers compete by advertising the exclusive, cool phones available on their networks which you can get only by signing a two-year contract, no matter how crappy the coverage and service might turn out to be." Verizon says they won't have the incentive to innovate and invest in better broadband technology without changing the rules to favor them.

Tim Wu, a professor of law at Columbia and a long time advocate of net neutrality, in a Slate magazine article uses a great and telling metaphor that we here can surely appreciate, likening a non-neutral internet experience to a highway system in which certain highways contract with specific auto manufacturers. In this type of non-competitive environment, to travel via I-94 to Detroit, say, you would need to buy a Honda; to travel another, faster, route, you would need to buy another brand of vehicle. Wu makes the important point that innovation would be stifled because manufacturers wouldn't need to make better cars, they would just need to make better deals with the respective highways: in other words, deal making, rather than innovation, would be the name of the game. Clearly, it would matter as much, or more, that a content provider like YouTube got the right contract with the right ISP provider than whether they improved the user experience.

I've always been both an avid consumer and observer of all things tech -- it's how I make my living. For me, the internet is like a utility -- always there, always on, always endlessly interesting. It's like a natural and renewable resource; an ecosystem whose "digital biodiversity" reflects our own strange and wonderful consciousness, and whose potential is as limitless as the potential of all the people on the planet. The internet, as is, represents a triumph of the human mind and imagination; a pinnacle in humanity's quest for unfettered communication, entrepreneurial possibility, educational potential, liberty of entertainment, and (perhaps most important of all) represents a democracy of ideas. To allow the internet to be diminished just to make two already powerful and profitable corporations more money is absolutely unconscionable.

Let's leave the last word to current FCC chair Julius Genachowskihe sums the importance of this issue succinctly:

"The FCC must be a smart cop on the beat preserving a free and open Internet... about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet This is not about protecting the Internet against imaginary dangers. We're seeing the breaks and cracks emerge, and they threaten to change the Internet's fundamental architecture of openness. This would shrink opportunities for innovators, content creators, and small businesses around the country, and limit the full and free expression the Internet promises. This is about preserving and maintaining something profoundly successful and ensuring that it's not distorted or undermined. If we wait too long to preserve a free and open Internet, it will be too late." is a great site that outlines some simple steps you can take.> (Image source: Kurt Griffith)

About the Author

Brad Kenney Blog | Chief Marketing Officer

Brad Kenney is the former Technology Editor of IndustryWeek and now serves as director of the mobile/social platforms practice at R/GA, a global marketing/advertising firm in New York City.

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