Google and Verizon Want to Redefine the Internet

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Google and Verizon proposed a new regulatory framework that they say could calm the heated network neutrality debate.

The idea that the network of networks we call the Internet should be open, so that data can flow unfettered from any node to any other node is part of the mythology and operation of the current system. But companies build and own those networks. Their corporate missions -- capturing maximum profit from investment in infrastructure -- don't include openness.

As you might expect, people who use the network (big Internet companies) have tended to favor net neutrality, while the people who build and operate the network (broadband providers) have opposed it.

That's what makes the Google-Verizon proposal interesting. It's a compromise between traditional adversaries, but from what we can tell from its brief two pages, it doesn't seem likely to make net neutrality advocates happy.

First, Google and Verizon separate wireless from wireline networks. On the former, net neutrality would not have to apply. Wireless bandwidth providers would only have to provide "transparency," so that we can all see if AT&T has cut a deal with a particular content provider.

"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," the companies wrote.

It's hard to see how that squares exactly with the opening statement of principle that began Google's blog post on the subject. "The original architects of the Internet got the big things right. By making the network open, they enabled the greatest exchange of ideas in history," the companies wrote in a post on Google's blog. "By making the Internet scalable, they enabled explosive innovation in the infrastructure."

If open networks are good, why should wireless be different? They don't make the case in these documents for why the "unique technical and operational characteristics" should change the fundamental underlying principle of the network. That's not to say there isn't a good argument, but it's certainly not in either the blog post or the policy document.

More troubling is that the language of the wireline net neutrality is squirrely. The companies suggest that they would be maintaining "net neutrality" on wireline services, but they'd allow "additional or differentiated services" over their networks.

"Such other services would have to be distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service, but could make use of or access Internet content, applications or services and could include traffic prioritization," they wrote.

Again, this is just a policy paper, but this seems like a slippery definition of what is and is not Internet traffic. Why not carry these "additional services" over the Internet, where they would be subject to the net neutrality rules that these companies claim to think is a good idea?

As one commenter on Google's blog wrote, "If you can't redefine the word 'neutrality', redefine the word 'Internet' instead."

Om Malik summed it up nicely:

The temptation to accept this compromise as good for everyone may force a version of network neutrality that leaves mobile, one of the fastest areas of innovation on the web, out of the new rules. It also enables an alternative version of the public Internet that could lead to the creation of a first-class and a second-class system of packet delivery.

Do those things matter? Probably, but maybe not as much as net neutrality advocates would contend. What I'm left wondering is whether this kind of proposal -- which exudes the sickly sweet smell of political horsetrading -- is what's needed to break the net neutrality stalemate.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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