It’s been about a week since the deadline for comments on the FCC’s notice of proposed rulemaking for net neutrality. Regulators are no doubt immersed in what promises to be an extremely long review process (in a somewhat unusual move, various advocacy organizations directed their supporters to submit comments directly — by at least one account, over 120,000 were submitted).
None of those comments attracted as much attention as the joint filing between Google and Verizon. An Internet service provider (ISP) and a content producer on the same side of this debate? It might not seem like a natural fit. It’s consequently tempting to look at the Google/Verizon proposal as an indication of what a possible net neutrality compromise could look like. But is it? And, just as important: would it be a good idea?
In truth, the partnership isn’t as unusual as one might think. Google and Verizon have collaborated on this issue before, publishing a joint blog post in advance of the FCC notice. It’s not entirely surprising: among the ISPs, Verizon’s current market position makes it uniquely amenable to the case being made by the content provider bloc. With DSL hitting technical limits and receding into a role as a budget broadband option, Verizon has undertaken a major infrastructure upgrade to FiOS — one that should leave them with a substantially higher-capacity network than the cable ISPs can offer. They’re also a new entrant to the digital-television marketplace. In short, Verizon is gunning for the Comcasts of the world, and doing so as a bit of an underdog. It has little reason to fight for a regulatory environment in which the network operators currently at the top of the heap can use their market power to entrench their positions.
So does the jointly submitted letter represent a good-faith common ground, free of the hyperbole and deliberate obfuscation that has characterized so much of this debate? Well, kind of. There’s a pleasant lack of “the FCC is about to accidentally break the internet!”-style fear-mongering. But there isn’t too much else on offer: some opening paeans to the Internet and consumer choice; an endorsement of transparency; a gentle reminder that neither party wants to be on the hook for enforcing intellectual property laws; and muted terror at the realization that the FCC is about to do… well, something.
From this flows the one really substantive idea in the letter: a proposal to create one or more “technical advisory groups” consisting of industry stakeholders, which would resolve neutrality-related disputes on a case-by-case basis, acting as a layer of mediation before the government became involved. Optimists will see this as an attempt to avoid the potential inefficiencies of regulation. Cynics will see it as a recipe for regulatory capture before the regulations are even written. And of course it’s not clear which stakeholders would have a say in these advisory groups. Would Joost? Or Sopcast users? It may be difficult to identify scrappy startups that deserve a seat at the table, particularly if they aren’t corporate entities.
More than anything, the letter serves as a reminder of how nebulous the net neutrality debate has become. What could the ISPs do to our society if they decided to press their advantage? It’s easy to let one’s imagination run wild and conjure net neutrality threats to virtually any cause or principle — hence the various framings of net neutrality as a fundamental economic/political/human rights/feminist issue.
But it’s worth keeping in mind that the only unambiguous violation of net neutrality that we’ve yet seen is Comcast’s decision to monkey with Bittorrent users’ reset packets — and, relatedly, some ISPs’ decision to throttle all encrypted traffic in an effort to fight Bittorrent (though this is still largely a Canadian phenomenon). That’s not to say that neutrality regulation isn’t worth pursuing. But whatever system is established should at least be able to deal with the one problematic case we’ve actually seen — and while the details could prove me wrong, the advisory group proposal doesn’t strike me as being up to the task. Verizon and Google’s common ground may indeed prove to be a useful preview of the FCC’s final vision of net neutrality, but it seems unlikely to be the whole picture.