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The ongoing international debate over net neutrality has been thrown into the limelight once again. This time its news of an unlikely partnership between Google, the once vocal advocates of net neutrality, and Verizon.

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

Neil Watson, Head of Service Operations

News broke regarding a ‘deal’ between Google and Verizon which would see the two companies put together a proposal for the tackling of net neutrality in the US. At first glance the two titans appear to support net neutrality and agree with previous plans from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) ensuring all providers are transparent about the management of their networks and prohibit discrimination against certain types of legal content.

“In providing broadband Internet access service, a provider would be prohibited from engaging in undue discrimination against any lawful Internet content, application, or service in a manner that causes meaningful harm to competition or to users. Prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted.”

However the proposals have provoked wide spread criticism and even protests in the US. The main cause of concern is the fact that the net neutrality proposals would not apply to wireless providers and create potential loopholes for what they are calling ‘differentiated content’.

“Because of the unique technical and operational characteristics of wireless networks, and the competitive and still-developing nature of wireless broadband services, only the transparency principle would apply to wireless broadband at this time.”

Critics argue that this in itself could completely undermine the principal of net neutrality and create a two tiered Internet. The BBC quotes one protester who argues “They are talking about producing a fast lane, essentially a higher tier, for premium content that means if you want to play in the 21st Century Internet you will have to pay.”

The issue is that if a two-tier Internet was allowed to evolve providers like Verizon could charge a content provider such as Google for access to the ‘fast lane’. Therefore customers using rival services such as Yahoo would experience much slower speeds than customers using Google, allowing Google to eliminate competitors because it has the resources to fund a better user experience. Secondly ISPs such as Verizon could slow down competing services e.g. other providers VoIP traffic, again creating an unfair advantage.

This latest argument raises a number of important questions. Firstly why exactly have Google and Verizon taken it upon themselves to draw up these proposals? Surely that is the job of the regulator, who in this case is the FCC. The FCC’s powers have already been called into question recently when a ruling against Comcast on a related net neutrality issue was overturned on appeal. Surely the fact that two major industry players are uniting to develop proposals that could potentially be adopted into law without consulting the regulator fundamentally undermines the powers and purpose of the FCC. Can you imagine the commotion if Google attempted something similar in the UK, consulting with BT without input from Ofcom for example?

Secondly when and why did Google move from a vocal net neutrality advocate to a potential adversary? Back in 2006 Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, had a very different stance, calling for Internet users to unite to protect net neutrality from the evils of the giant cable monopolies. “Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody – no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional – has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can’t pay. Creativity, innovation and a free and open marketplace are all at stake in this fight.”

It turns out it’s not just the obvious net neutrality advocates that are against Google and Verizon’s plans. Their industry peers seem to be lining up to denounce the proposals. Ebay reportedly commented that “two-tier networks with corporate toll lanes would stifle ground-up innovation and benefit dominant businesses at the expense of smaller competitors and entrepreneurs.” It seems they are not alone with Amazon stating that “while network operators should be allowed to offer additional services, we are concerned that this proposal appears to condone services that could harm consumer internet access”. Finally Skype added “We believe openness principles should apply to wireless as well as fixed-line internet access.”

So what does this mean for the UK?

This is all going on in the US and would only affect ISPs and users across the pond so you could be forgiven for thinking that this debate is irrelevant and won’t affect you. However, as with many things that start in the US there is an inevitable path towards the UK. Our saving grace is perhaps the fact that we have Ofcom as a regulator which arguably has more power and influence (currently at least) than the FCC and the fact that we are partly ‘governed’ by the EU which is currently investigating its own net neutrality proposals.

The other important point to remember is that currently at least, this is all just a set of proposals put together by Verizon and Google. These proposals have no legal weight and affect no one else. The concern is that the ‘proposals’ could be used as a basis from which the FCC would draft legal obligations and obviously in their current format the proposals leave a lot to be desired.

The net neutrality debate is a complicated one. Whilst we agree with the fundamental principal of keeping a level playing field, the increasing demand for bandwidth means increasing costs for ISPs and makes providing a fair and equal service for all customers increasingly difficult. Eventually it is inevitable that ISPs need to implement traffic management policies to ensure a high quality service for all customers. We agree that providers should be open and honest about the policies they apply. Therefore we agree with the basis of the Google and Verizon proposals however we also believe that it is essential such proposals be applied to all providers, fixed line or otherwise. If not the potential for a tiered Internet is far too great and the potential issues are far too costly.

Have your say!

What is your opinion on net neutrality? Do you think a tiered approach is acceptable or do you think an even playing field must be protected at all costs? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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