Outside editorial: Net neutrality must apply to all of the Web

Posted: Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

Google characterizes its agreement with Verizon, announced earlier this month, as a pragmatic compromise in the battle over net neutrality, which government regulators have struggled for years to address. Critics say it's a profit-driven cave to the telecommunications industry.

Either way, the proposed legislative framework is not neutral for consumers.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has offered a reasonable "Third Way" proposal that would regulate broadband much like phone service, but in a limited way that's better suited to modern technology. We urge him to continue pursuing a version of that strategy, even amid intense opposition.

Net neutrality - the concept that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally by service providers, regardless of its content - must apply to all of the Web. But the framework endorsed by Google, previously the most prominent corporate supporter of net neutrality, would for now exempt wireless providers - a blow to consumers and the small businesses that rely on a free and open Internet to compete.

If adopted, the Google-Verizon framework would create two sets of rules for accessing the Internet, a convoluted arrangement for consumers. Wired-line service providers would have to abide by the principles of net neutrality, while the growing wireless industry could speed, slow or block content based on its own desires or business arrangements.

Verizon Wireless, for example, could in theory speed access to its business partner Google's search engine, and slow access to Bing, owned by Microsoft. Bing could even be blocked.

This would be unfair, not to mention confusing. An iPhone user, for instance, might see different rules of the road based on whether she was connecting to the Internet from her home network or from a park using AT&T's. That makes no sense.

Google and Verizon argue that wireless spectrum constraints mean the rules should be different. No one, though, suggests wireless providers be barred from using reasonable network management practices - say, slowing access to individual bandwidth hogs - when bandwidth is constrained. They just shouldn't be able to block, slow or speed access to certain sites, which the Google-Verizon proposal would allow.

The framework has other worrisome pieces. It would allow the creation of Internet "fast lanes," in which companies pay to access a new, quicker network, an idea with serious potential consequences for the existing public Internet. It also allows telecom companies, in some cases, to police themselves - and we know how well that's worked in other areas.

Net neutrality proponents expected better results from the Obama administration. Politics, intense lobbying, a court ruling that the FCC did not have the authority to regulate broadband and now Google's about-face have set back their efforts. Nonetheless, Genachowski must continue to search for a way to codify net neutrality for both the wired and wireless Internet. And we hope Google, long one of net neutrality's great champions, rethinks its support of a plan that would decimate the open Internet that was so integral to its own success.

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