Google fires back at net neutrality critics

Google denies it has "sold out" its open internet and net neutrality principles in a proposal for new rules made jointly with telecommunications giant Verizon earlier this week.

Google denies it has "sold out" its open internet and net neutrality principles in a proposal for new rules made jointly with telecommunications giant Verizon earlier this week.

"Google has been the leading corporate voice on the issue of network neutrality over the past five years," wrote Richard Whitt, the company's telecom and media counsel in Washington. "No other company is working as tirelessly for an open internet."

Google and Verizon on Monday announced a set of rules they said would help enshrine net neutrality, a term that has different meanings but generally refers to a policy that would prevent internet providers such as cable and phone companies from unfairly discriminating between types of traffic in the United States.

The proposal from Google and Verizon included the prohibition of unfair traffic discrimination and the granting of powers to the Federal Communications Commission to impose penalties of up to $2 million for violations. The proposal also would require telecommunications service providers to be transparent in how they manage their networks.

Two suggestions in particular, however, drew heavy criticism from consumer groups, technology bloggers and other internet companies. Google and Verizon suggested that the wireless internet be temporarily exempt from such net neutrality rules so that service providers are not dissuaded from investing in what is still a relatively new technology.

The companies also suggested the rules should not apply to specialized services that use the internet but are not actually a part of it, such as a specific gaming channel or a more secure banking service.

On Thursday, Google countered those concerns and called them "myths." Whitt said that while Google has previously advocated for net neutrality rules on the wireless internet, a compromise was necessary in order to get any rules at all.

"Given political realities, this particular issue has been intractable in Washington for several years now. At this time there are no enforceable protections — at the Federal Communications Commission or anywhere else — against even the worst forms of carrier discrimination against internet traffic," he wrote.

"In the spirit of compromise, we have agreed to a proposal that allows this market [wireless] to remain free from regulation for now, while Congress keeps a watchful eye."

Google was willing to bend on wireless net neutrality rules because U.S. consumers generally have more than two service providers to choose from, which isn't the case with the wired internet, he said.

Critics also said that Google's position on specialized services could result in a second, private internet emerging, and that telecommunications companies would inevitably favour it and force customers onto it.

Whitt said this would not happen because of several safeguards built in to the proposal, including a requirement for broadband providers to prove that such services were "distinguishable in purpose and scope" from internet access, "so that they cannot over time supplant the best effort internet." The FCC would also have full capability to monitor such services and ensure that the companies weren't shirking their investment responsibilities to the actual internet.

"We believe there would be more than adequate tools in place to help guard against the 'cannibalization' of the public internet," Whitt wrote.

Google also denied its negotiations with Verizon had anything to do with Android, its cellphone operating system. Critics suggested Google was trying to curry favour with Verizon, a major U.S. wireless carrier.

The FCC has been grappling with the net neutrality issue since 2007, when it was revealed that cable provider Comcast was blocking peer-to-peer file sharing taking place over BitTorrent. Efforts to create rules have hit various roadblocks, resulting in the United States lagging Canada on net neutrality.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission last year established guidelines on how internet providers are to manage their networks. The rules prohibit unjustified interference with specific types of traffic and require service providers to be transparent in how they manage their networks. Unlike the Google/Verizon proposal, the rules also apply to wireless traffic.

Criticism of the Google/Verizon proposal migrated north on Thursday as Charlie Angus, the NDP's spokesman for digital issues and MP for Timmins—James Bay, said the CRTC needs to establish stronger net neutrality rules.

The Google/Verizon "deal is the wrong deal at the wrong time in the history of the internet. We are calling on the CRTC to ensure fair access for all content in the digital world," he said in a statement. "There is no such thing as a ‘public’ or a ‘private’ internet. There is only digital content. And all this content must be treated in the same way."

Back in the United States, a protest was being organized by media watchdog Free Press to take place outside of Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., on Friday.


Peter Nowak


Peter Nowak is a Toronto-based technology reporter and author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.