One Internet or Two?
Here’s the heart of the matter: The meaning of the Google-Verizon proposal depends on what the meaning of “Internet” is. There are two ways of looking at it.
First, there’s Verizon’s way. Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg is essentially saying: Right now, we provide three services to you, over the copper or fiber-optic wire: telephone, television, and Internet. All we’re talking about is allowing us to do more, by providing “additional, differentiated online services” along with the three that we already provide. The Internet stays net neutral, so there’s nothing to make a fuss about. He suggests that examples of what these additional services might be include “health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options.”
Second, there’s everybody else’s way. The Google-Verizon proposal means that there are two internets, running over the same infrastructure. The first one is the Internet we all use. The second is paid-access-only, owned by the carriers. Its traffic can take priority over the traffic on the Internet. Large content providers would be able to buy from the carriers preferred, guaranteed bandwidth, and the Internet gets whatever is left over, which it can share in a “neutral” way. But what actually happens it the opposite of net neutrality.
Is this second option what they mean? Notice that Google’s own statements use the phrase “the public Internet”; why put in the word “public” other than to contrast with something else, a second, private Internet?
And, don’t forget, net neutrality does not apply to mobile/wireless networks. Why not?
What happens if there are technical advances allowing Verizon to replaces their wire and fiber cables with a new, even-better home service that doesn’t use wires at all? As wires become quaint old technology, does that mean the FCC loses all of those powers? And what about connections that traverse many different physical media? That’s what the “inter-” in “Internet” means. Do the rules for wireless “trump” the others and apply to the whole communication?
Politics and Diplomacy
Initially, I was surprised, disappointed, and even angered by Google. I expect no better from Verizon (or any of their direct competitors), but Google is a company that I’ve respected and admired for a long time. Their external handling of this matter has severely tarnished their “Don’t be evil” image.
If Google says that the carriers are putting up a strong fight against net neutrality, I believe that. I have no problem with Google’s negotiating a proposal, privately, with Verizon, per se. But the best proposal they could agree on is unacceptable to me, and to many others, as you can see from the articles referenced below.
It would have been pleasing and gratifying had Google “come out fighting,” denouncing Verizon, and saying that net neutrality, everywhere and anywhere, was utterly mandatory to any possible agreement. Instead, it looks as if Google’s very first move in the game is to give in to Verizon’s lousy proposal. It makes Google look as if they were every bit as enthusiastic about this compromise as Verizon must be.
But think about it some more. First, there’s real evidence that the carriers have a lot of political power, i.e. ability to influence the decisions of the Federal Government. Look at how the courts have been interpreting laws in ways that give the FCC little power. How did Congress react? How did the Obama administration act? Talk is cheap; now they have to actually do what they said. But as far as I can see, they don’t seem to be fighing back.
Now, taking this into account, imagine being in Google’s shoes. If Google simply insists strongly on full net neutrality, and then do not succeed, Google will end up looking powerless. People will respect Google less when Google tries to influence public policy and it does no good. That would be bad not only for them, but for us: despite the current imbroglio, Google can be, and usually is, a powerful participant on the correct side of the issues.
What’s really happening? There are many interpretations that are consistent with the facts (to greater or lesser degrees). Here’s the one that I think puts the best light on Google. The carriers are fighting hard, and have demonstrated lots of political power. Google is trying to negotiate the best deal that they think they can get, and call that a “first proposal that is a starting point for discussion.” Meanwhile, Google is trying to acquire power for net neutrality, to fight back. One way is to urge us all to write letters to our congresspeople asking for net neutrality, which they are urging us to do. If Google really wanted this deal, why would they exhort us to pressure Congress to enforce net neutrality?
This is the world of diplomacy, which often seems opaque, confusing, and even silly from the outside. I have no expertise here, but diplomacy is a serious and important pursuit, and in the present situation it’s the only way to go. Nobody can actually get their way by force. Diplomats, especially in multi-party negotiations that are novel rather than routine, are in extremely difficult positions when it comes to saying anything in public. My interpretation of what many statements mean is from within that kind of framework.
Google is Handling This Poorly
I always tell people to hold their judgment of a genuine controversy until they have heard out the other side. What has Google said?
Full disclosure: I like Google, and have many friends who work there. It’s likely that my employer will be bought by Google and that I will soon be a Google employee. I give you my word that I am not changing, or even shading, my opinions on account of anh of those things. I think that the “best light on Google” interpretation is likely to be close to the truth, but I cannot prove it. I am 100% in the “net neutrality” camp. Also, as soon as anti-trust issuees are cleared, Google will buy ITA Software and I will be a Google employee. I have always liked Google a lot, and I feel that my own situation has nothing whatsoever to do with what I’m writing here. When I do become a Google employee, I will have to stop writing about these topics, since what I say then would be subject to interpretation as Google official policy no matter how hard I disclaim that. But right now, the ITA/Google deal has not been done, and it might theoretically never happen (I have no inside knowledge whatsoever), so right now I am definitely not a Google employee. Still, you should apply all the usual caution you bring to bear on anything you read, especially on Internet blogs.
And in all fairness, remember that the audience for this isn’t just you and me. Google knows that this will be scrutinized by Verizon (and other carriers), the FCC, Congressional staffers, and so on. As I said earlier, I believe that they are trying to appear to Verizon as someone who can be worked with, and they must not offend anyone in public, lest they hurt their ability to influence parties in negotiations.
Nevertheless, I am not just disappointed but even rather appalled and outraged by Google’s comments to the press and outside world. It’s amazingly similar to the way bad politicians talk: spin, misleading, non-sequiturs, and even a few falsehoods. I hope Google will learn from this experience that if you talk like a sleazy politician, it’s very hard to hold the moral high ground of “don’t be evil”. I hope they’ll find better people to do public relations in the future.
For starters, on August 5, Google “denied reports that it is in talks with Verizon for a deal that could undermine Net neutrality. Google officially announced: “We have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google traffic. We remain as committed as we always have been to an open Internet.”
Note the very careful wording. They have not talked about paying for the carriage of Google traffic. This was literally true, but utterly misleading. (They sure fooled me! See my earlier blog essays.)
Then Google released a statement on their Google’s Public Policy blog, called Facts About Our Network Neutrality Policy Proposal. It’s in “myth versus fact” format.
MYTH: Google has “sold out” on network neutrality.
It sure looked that way to me at first. I now believe that Google does not want this proposal to turn into reality, although the bad scenario in which it does is a real possibility. But Google appears to be hypocritial.
“Google has been the leading corporate voice on the issue of network neutrality over the past five years. No other company is working as tirelessly for an open Internet.” Sorry, that looks like Google talked when talk was cheap, but now that push comes to shove, it’s caving in.
That was my own immediate reaction. But in my “best light on Google” theory, this statement is a slightly coded way of saying “we are going to do real work, and pay real costs, to get net neutrality rather than this proposal”. It’s so hard for us to know what’s happening behind the scenes.
MYTH: This proposal represents a step backwards for the open Internet.
The proposal would give the FCC enforcement power over the “wireline Internet”. But that misses the whole point, since by “Internet”, it doesn’t include the “additional services”! Also, I don’t know about you, but I have never even heard the term “wireline Internet” before, ever. What, exactly, does that mean? Anything that does not go over protocols like CDMA? Anything that does not go over actual cables?
MYTH: This proposal would eliminate network neutrality over wireless.
Google says: “However, in the spirit of compromise, we have agreed to a proposal that allows this market to remain free from regulation for now, while Congress keeps a watchful eye.”
In other words, Google’s compromise is that there will be no regulation at all. They consider this OK because (1) wireless is more competitive because there are more than two providers to choose from; (2) airwaves are in contention, unlike cable, so “carriers need to manage their networks more actively”; (3) Congress will keep a watchful eye.
Regarding (1): I was at a talk (the MassTLC Innovation unConference) in which an expert explained that you need at least four or five wireless carriers to get a competitive market. The expert was one of the leaders of the Android group at Google.
Regarding (2): The fact that there is contention over the airwaves is the main reason that the FCC exists and has regulatory power in the first place! This is a “freedom is slavery” argument. (This is a metaphor, not a literal reference to slavery. It’s from George Orwell’s novel “1984″.)
Regarding (3): The claim is that we can relax, because if anything bad happens, Congress will step in and save the day. But in light of what’s clearly going on, the carriers have a huge influence over Congress, and what they’re doing is avoiding any regulation. Will Congress suddenly develop a backbone and do something, especially after the carriers have set everything up the way they like it?
The proposal says that the wireless providers should be “fully transparent with users” about “congestion management”. First, being fully transparent doesn’t protect users; it just means that users know what they are getting, whether they like it or not. Second, what is the line between “congestion management” and “preferential treatment”? Without a very crisp distinction, the two might slide together, which is exactly what we’re worried about.
They also propose that the Federal Government (hmm, why not the FCC specifically?) should “monitor and report regularly on the state of the wireless broadband market.” Again, we’ll know what’s happening to us; not very comforting.
Now here’s what I really consider sophistry: “Importantly, Congress would always have the ability to step in and impose new safeguards on wireless broadband providers to protect consumers’ interests.” Well, that’s already true. It’s always true. After all, no proposal would bar Congress from making laws in the future! Google is saying soothing things that actually don’t mean anything. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel that I am being taken for a ride.
The next paragraph is designed to persuade us that “open Internet wireless platforms” are coming all by themselves. That’s nice. I guess we can just trust the providers and go home.
I know, I know, I ought not be sardonic and sarcastic. But my meta-point is that, above and beyond the specific facts about wireless vs. wired and so on, Google is sounding like they are trying to fool us. Some of the sentences in this blog item afre downright insulting: do they really expect me to believe this, or to consider this a substantive rebuttal?
MYTH: This proposal will allow broadband providers to “cannibalize” the public Internet.
Here they describe the “additional services” and say that they “are not part of the Internet.” They say: “We have a number of key protections in the proposal to protect the public Internet”. Why qualify “Internet” with the adjective “public”?
“First, the broadband provider must fully comply with the consumer protection and nondiscrimination standards governing its Internet access service before it could pursue any of these other online service opportunities.” Exactly what standards are we talking about here?
“Second, these services must be ‘distinguishable in purpose and scope’ from Internet access, so that they cannot over time supplant the best effort Internet.” Again, this sidesteps the key point: these “additional services” run over the same infrastructure as the Internet, and they will get priority, thus slowing down the Internet. And what, exactly, is the “purpose and scope” of the Internet, and, most important, who gets to make that decision?
“Third, the FCC retains its full capacity to monitor these various service offerings, and to intervene where necessary to ensure that robust, unfettered broadband capacity is allocated to Internet access.”
Well, I’m very comforted that nobody is taking away the FCC’s ability to monitor what’s going on, but being able to take action is what matters. They say that the FCC “retains” its capacity to do those things, but the last time I looked, I thought that the FCC’s powers in these areas had been greatly curtailed:
The record so far is indicative of how the FCC has functioned to date, and reflects the way the Commission has shrunk from its responsibilities to deal with crucial issues about the future of the Internet. Instead of issuing orders in dockets on a non-discriminatory Internet or on re-establishing the FCC’s ability to protect consumers and set rules of the road for broadband, the Commission has abdicated its responsibilities.
“It’s up to Congress, the FCC, other policymakers – and the American public – to take it from here.” What that ends up sounding like is: “now that Google has sold out, it’s up to everybody else to proceed without Google’s clout.”
But we really need to do it. We have to make it clear that we want net neutrality.
Appendix: The Anti-Google Press
The Huffington Post ran (at least) two articles, after the real story came out about what Google and Verizon were proposing. The first is called Google-Verizon Deal: The End of The Internet as We Know It, and the second is called Google-Verizon Pact: It Gets Worse.
PC Magazine ran a story called Google Acknowledges That Verizon Owns Your Internet, which approaches the issue from a different perspective. For example, it brings up Google’s “Nexus One”, an Android phone to be available on many carriers. But they didn’t market it seriously, hardly sold any, and killed the project in less than a year. There can be any number of reasons for a project to fail, but the Verizon deal certainly raises questions about whether Google could have caved on creating this kind of competition among the carriers. I think it’s likely that Google really did intend to do that. But now, we all have to wonder what the motivations were for killing the project, and we’ll never really know. By creating this kind of suspicion, the Google-Verizon proposal erodes the public’s trust in Google.
Wired Magazine ran a story called Here’s The Real Google/Verizon Story: A Tale of Two Internets (UPDATED). I will quote the two strongest paragraphs (the word “flame” probably isn’t entirely out of bounds to describe this):
So the Google-Verizon deal can be summed up as this: “FCC, you have no authority over us and you’re not going to do anything about it. Congress, we own you, and we’ll get whatever legislation we want. And American people, you can’t stop us.”
This Google-Verizon deal, this industry-captured FCC, and the way this is playing out is akin to the largest banks and the largest hedge funds writing the regulatory policy on derivative trading without any oversight or input from the public, and having it rubber stamped by the SEC. It’s like BP and Halliburton ironing out the rules for offshore oil drilling with no public input, and having MMS sign off.
Later, the article calms down, and get more analytical:
And that would be the first question, assuming this tale of two internets ever gets written: To what extent would an inherently more private network mingle with the public internet? Would it be like pay cable and satellite TV, which now provides some content that had previously been available on “free” TV, without killing broadcasting entirely? Or would it be like network television and syndication, which killed local station production and innovation?
There’s also Infoworld’s article.
Appendix 2: Google vs. Antitrust
I am sure that Google does not believe that they are doing anything evil. The question is whether living with a “Don’t be evil” slogan has stopped them from being able to see their own missteps when they happen. This problem was discussed in a thoughtful article by Fred Vogelstein, published in Wired last summer, that made a big impression on me. It’s called Why Is Obama’s Top Antitrust Cop Gunning for Google? I recommend strongly that anyone interested in Google’s place in public policy read this article. It’s not an anti-Google screed at all. I found it fair and disinterested. Of course you will make up your own mind.
Most relevant to the present discussion are these two paragraphs:
For much of its history, Google has responded to most criticism with two words: Trust us. The company has repeatedly persuaded skeptics that its immensity is a mere byproduct of its altruistic mission and that the algorithms it uses to organize the Internet, while proprietary, are objective and benevolent. But in an economy destroyed by bad faith, secretive formulas, and complicated mathematics, trust is in short supply, and Google’s assurances are losing their persuasive power. More than 15 years ago, federal regulators began making Microsoft the symbol of anti-competitive behavior in the tech industry. Now, a newly activist DoJ may try to do the same thing to Google.
Just like Gates before him, Schmidt says he has no plans to change his company’s trajectory in the face of regulatory challenges. Microsoft’s belligerence was a function of its will to power, a refusal to believe that the government had the authority or intelligence to take it down. Google still thinks it can get regulators to see it as it sees itself: not as a mere company but as a force for good.