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[ NNSquad ] Google, Verizon, and Getting Real

                   Google, Verizon, and Getting Real


Greetings.  Reactions to the "Verizon-Google Legislative Framework
Proposal" ( http://bit.ly/9EEEy7 [Lauren's Blog] ) have been
splattering around the globe ever since the two firms announced the
plan earlier this month ( http://bit.ly/cpO0bU [Google Public 
Policy Blog] ).

The proposal has some clearly worthwhile elements, yet is problematic
in other aspects.  Much more on this in a moment.

To date I have mainly noted my distaste for the many rude and
basically "over the top" reactions that have dominated media coverage
of the announcement ( http://bit.ly/dh6VVy [Lauren's Blog] ). 

These reactions have been nothing short of wacky in some cases.  
A small group of protesters dropped in on the Googleplex, singing
off-key protest songs ("Hands off the Internet, It Must be Free!"),
creating some fodder for newscasts around the world, and some laughs
for Jon Stewart (who, in the same segment also featured out-of-context
clips of Google's Vint Cerf).

And the Net has been ablaze with postings, articles, and a wide range
of rants calling Google evil, illustrations adding horns and a pointed
tail to the Google logo, and otherwise raking Google over the coals
for the supposedly reprehensible act of jointly proposing an "open
Internet" plan with Verizon.

"Oh Google, why hast though forsaken us?" cry the accusers, sometimes
phrasing their protestations both impolitely and with vile tone.

Meanwhile few if any protests have been aimed at Verizon, Google's
partner in this proposal, perhaps because (as Dr. Sidney Schaefer
notes in the classic 1967 film "The President's Analyst") pretty
much everyone already hates "The Phone Company."

For those parties who have falsely accused Google of being a
"monopoly" -- on the basis that it has become large and dominant in
various aspects of Internet services -- the joint proposal
demonstrates the true nature of monopoly power -- and this has nothing
whatever to do with Google, which has built its business fair and
square, without monopoly advantages bestowed by governments.

Not so the now dominant ISPs.  Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner --
all have created their empires upon the foundations of what were
originally government-sanctioned monopoly telephone or cable services.
Even today, many of those same monopoly-era facilities are in use by
these firms.  DSL-technology services (including AT&T's U-verse) are
routinely deployed over copper pairs that have provided basic
telephone services for almost half a century or more.  Conduits,
poles, tunnels, cabinets, pedestals, and vast numbers of buildings
both large and small were built with monopoly advantages and now
provide the infrastructure for broadband deployments by these same
firms in new incarnations and combinations.

These telecom giants have used their vast resources, including
lobbying expertise and monies that dwarf those of firms like Google
(in the case of the telcos, more than a century of such expertise) to
maintain privileged positions for themselves.

Meanwhile, these same telecom companies have carefully controlled
broadband deployments, often cherry-picking the most lucrative areas
for high-speed Internet, and in some cases even breaking deployment
promises that had been made with local and state governments,
essentially penalty free.  Even now, Verizon recently announced that
it was ceasing most new FiOS expansions to instead concentrate on
increasing "market share."  Such market share battles don't get new
broadband to people without it, rather they shuffle pie slices among
the existing players in any given locale.

While much of the world has created true broadband competition by
requiring the sharing of physical broadband facilities among competing
firms, in the U.S. the dominant ISPs have successfully fought such
reasonable requirements with tooth and nail.

All of this is important to keep in mind when thinking about the
Verizon/Google proposal, because it's obvious that Verizon entered the
ring from a position of far greater power both now and in their
earlier discussions with Google that eventually led to the framework

Google may have access to user data for Google-related services, but
Verizon controls every bit, every byte of user data for every site --
including Google -- that Verizon's customers wish to access on the

The dominant telco and cable ISPs have successfully "managed" their
goals within the current toxic political environment to assure that
the sorts of regulatory focus and overhaul that Google is known to
support -- often subsumed under the label "Net Neutrality" -- are
likely impossible to accomplish in a comprehensive manner, with the
FCC increasingly appearing as largely impotent in terms of positively
affecting these issues.

Where does this leave Google?  Where does it leave us?

The status quo is not indefinitely tenable.  My interpretation of
Google's motivations in this matter is that Google desperately wants
to at least get the ball moving within this sphere, with the
understanding that even a suboptimal proposal -- and remember, that's
all it is, a proposal, a starting point -- is better than nothing, and
can serve as a catalyst for further positive change moving forward.

The nature of the framework proposal itself reinforces this analysis.

The plan is sufficiently general that there is little within to seem
threatening to most existing Internet-related business models or
applications, certainly when compared to the current essentially
regulation-free laissez-faire situation.

But that same generality creates something of an "empty vessel" effect
where observers can easily project their own hopes and fears into the
missing details of the document.

What are lawful applications?  How will reasonable network management
decisions be made?  How to avoid unreasonable restrictions on wireless
services as wireless broadband increasingly competes with wireline
services on a performance basis?  The list of potential questions is a
long one.

And while the document suggests mechanisms for making these sorts of
determinations, the devil is always in the details, and it is not
unreasonable to have concerns that if such mechanisms are not
forthcoming or prove unsuitable to the task, the risk is real that
even more problems could be in the offing.

Two quick examples of why details matter so much.  There's no way to
determine from the current proposal whether the common ISP practice of
banning (through terms of service and/or port blocking) most
subscribers from operating well-behaved, legal servers of whatever
sort they wish.  Such bans have often been used as a wedge to push
users upward toward more expensive service tiers.

Nor is it clear what sorts of services would qualify for the
"additional or differentiated services" offerings (that is, not part
of the public Internet per se) proposed by the framework plan.
Verizon's CEO, during the conference call announcing the proposal,
specifically mentioned "entertainment services" and 3D television --
but these seem among the more problematic examples -- especially given
the rapid advances in video encoding technologies (including related
to 3D).

This spotlights a pertinent concern about differentiated services in
particular -- the risk that the existence of non-neutral
differentiated services tiers might suppress the development of
technologies that could have performed the same functions successfully
on the public Internet, where greater bandwidth and capabilities could
be deployed in a more competitive manner to benefit a larger community
of users.

Still, the lack of such details should not be used to condemn the
proposal itself, since by its very nature such a proposal couldn't
reasonably be expected to contain such levels of specificity.

And though I do personally feel that Verizon's power and monopoly
history have helped to create a severely uneven playing field, and
that a strong regulatory approach to net neutrality and open Internet
issues would be both appropriate and desirable, the reality is that
this is increasingly unlikely to be possible in the short term at

I am fundamentally a realist, and while slogans, protests, and
wishful thinking may all have their place, I don't feel that they're
well suited for dealing with complex technology policy matters.

It is inappropriate to condemn Google for assessing the current
telecom, regulatory, and political landscape, and coming to the quite
reasonable judgment that a very general joint proposal with Verizon
carried not only the potential for positive movement related to
long-stalled Internet and broadband issues, but would also certainly
stimulate renewed public discussion and consideration of these
important matters.

Rather, this is an attitude that should be congratulated as completely
realistic and appropriate given the circumstances that we must deal
with, like 'em or not.

Scorched earth, take no prisoners, no compromise positions are the
surest path to continued deadlock and the perpetuation of the current
limbo -- with little hope of useful forward motion to prepare for the
new classes of broadband issues that are bearing down on us very
rapidly indeed.

The Google/Verizon proposal, despite its flaws and necessarily
inherent lack of details -- or perhaps even because of them -- has
provided a necessary "kick in the pants" to all stakeholders in the
Internet arena who are concerned about where the Internet and
broadband services are headed, and how we will formulate the complex
policies that must drive, control, and nurture these vital
technologies into the future.

Google -- and Verizon -- both deserve our thanks for getting this show
back on the road.

Lauren Weinstein (lauren@vortex.com)
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
Co-Founder, PFIR (People For Internet Responsibility): http://www.pfir.org
Co-Founder, NNSquad (Network Neutrality Squad): http://www.nnsquad.org
Founder, GCTIP (Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance): 
Founder, PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurenweinstein
Google Buzz: http://bit.ly/lauren-buzz