Google and Verizon seem to see no net worth in equality
The seventh commandment of Animalism, the laws put in place by the animals after they'd overthrown the humans and taken control in George Orwell's political satire Animal Farm, was: "All animals are equal." But once the pigs became corrupted with power and greed they added "? but some animals are more equal than others". From their furtive discussions last week, it is apparent that internet giants Google and Verizon wish to make some internet content more equal than others. In effect, ripping up and throwing out "net neutrality", an unwritten commandment that has governed the internet since inception.
The public statements emerging from Google and Verizon executives deny any skulduggery but the written agreement the two have put together, which is now available for public viewing, says quite the contrary. It is the culmination of 10 months of discussions between the two parties. Undoubtedly the agreement would have been skewed in favour of their corporate interests had it not been for the enormous public outcry in the US last week. When The New York Times broke the story of what was possibly afoot in these behind-closed-doors discussions, the federal communications commission (FCC) became inundated by members of the public appalled at what was happening. There was a moment last week when the corporate carve up of the internet was seriously on the cards. However, it hasn't happened ? yet. And nor should we let it.
But why is net neutrality so important to the internet? Well, let's just take a step back and see how the internet became arguably the fairest medium created by human beings. The lead designers of the network architecture of the internet, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, in the 1970s made sure net neutrality was a central axiom of their creation. Whatever the content - e-mail, images, phone, video - it would be treated equally so no content had priority over another. Today this means the internet service provider (ISP) delivering content to the user must treat all of the data (websites, content, platforms) equally. They cannot prioritise one type of traffic or content provider over another. Otherwise, those who could pay, generally large companies, would have an unfair advantage in reaching internet users against, say, smaller firms.
As the internet runs today, no single organisation or group, no matter how large or powerful, can control it. The internet creates a space for entrepreneurs and start-ups - like Google, Facebook and Twitter in their early days - to emerge and become household names. And it also provides future start-ups with the hope that they will be playing on a level field. Hence, meritocracy prevails. The business model for using the internet is also pretty straightforward. As corporate or residential users we buy a connection from an ISP, such as Etisalat and Du, to get on to the internet. Organisations and individuals pay for web hosting, which allows us to view, search and use this content. Everyone's happy.
Except the giant US telecommunications groups such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, who are also ISPs. They would prefer an internet where they could charge organisations a premium for having their content delivered faster than someone else's. Essentially that would create a tiered internet where those who pay ISPs have access to users more quickly than those who don't or can't, leaving the majority of organisations - especially small, medium enterprises and non-commercial entities - operating on a slow track that runs parallel to a "premium internet" information superhighway the ISPs are seeking to create.
"The point of a network neutrality rule is to prevent big companies from dividing the internet between them," says Gigi Sohn, the president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington. "The fate of the internet is too large a matter to be decided by negotiations involving two companies, even companies as big as Verizon and Google," she says. We can only guess at what the agreement between Google and Verizon may have been had the matter not received so much flak from the public. Still, they managed to put together a rather ominous agreement.
The first part of the proposal is fine since it reinforces key principles such as no ISP can discriminate against any service in an anti-competitive way; or block consumers from any legal service. ISPs must be transparent about their managed services and have the right to manage web traffic as well as committing to further investments in broadband networks. Now for the doublespeak on Google's informal corporate motto "Don't be evil" - the above only relates to wireline (fixed) services such as phone landlines and cable connections. No wireless (mobile device) services are included. Google and Verizon do not want net neutrality in wireless. Since the future of the internet appears to be in the wireless domain it means that ISPs, if they have their way, could discriminate against a competitor, promote those who pay more and snuff out bandwidth to those who couldn't afford to pay for a premium internet. The two giants also slipped in another clause; any new "additional or differentiated services" introduced by an ISP would be exempt - 3D TV being a possible example. This further stifles the ability of entrepreneurs and the little guys to come up with services that can be viewed by internet users, since they'd either get blocked or shoved off on to the slow lane.
If Google and Verizon get their way then forget any start-ups and small companies emerging from the internet in the future, unless they can pay to be on the "premium superhighway". Google and Verizon clearly believe there is no merit in having an open internet and have, like the squealers in Animal Farm, come to the conclusion that they are created more equal than others. Rehan Khan is a business consultant and writer based in Dubai
Updated: August 15, 2010 04:00 AM