Net neutrality is a big issue. Unlike many public utilities, the infrastructure of the Internet is owned by private companies. Furthermore, unlike privatised utilities, it's quite lightly regulated.
The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided almost a year ago that it's time to formalise the regulation of the Internet and launched an initiative. Since then it seems to have done roughly bugger-all, so Google and Verizon yesterday decided to try to move things along by submitting a proposal to the FCC to move the dialogue along a bit.
1. The FCC should be able to enforce wireline broadband openness
2. There should be new, enforceable prohibition against discriminatory practices
3. The favouring or prioritising of some Internet traffic should not be allowed
4. The FCC should have the power to issue fines of up to $2 million to offenders
5. Broadband providers should be allowed to develop differentiated online services, but these should be distinguishable from traditional broadband Internet services
6. These principles will not be applicable to wireless broadband
7. The Federal Universal Service Fund should be reformed, so that it is focused on deploying broadband in areas where it is not now available.
To be fair to the FCC, it did suffer a major challenge to its authority last April when a federal appeals court ruled the FCC didn't have the authority to enforce its own rules. With that in mind, the FCC issued a prickly response to these proposals. "Some will claim this announcement moves the discussion forward. That's one of its many problems," said FCC commissioner Michael J Copps (wasn't he in Back to the Future? - Ed).
"It is time to move a decision forward-a decision to reassert FCC authority over broadband telecommunications, to guarantee an open Internet now and forever, and to put the interests of consumers in front of the interests of giant corporations." We couldn't agree more Mike, so what are you waiting for?
Last week the NYT broke a story that Google and Verizon were planning to undermine net neutrality by colluding to prioritise some traffic. That story was refuted by Google, but concerns remain about the motives of the two companies in making this proposal.
Essentially it's points five and six above that have caused angst. The differentiated online services option has the potential to undermine the whole premise of net neutrality, and what's the point of keeping wired broadband open if a completely different set of rules apply to wireless?
The two companies have attempted to address these concerns in a Washington Post op-ed, but so long as there remain so many loose ends to their joint proposal, Google and Verizon will continue to struggle to convince sceptics of their altruistic motives.