Today Google and Verizon announced their proposal for an "open Internet," in which they campaign for strict enforcement of a transparent and open wireline broadband service, but with loopholes for wireless service and "differentiated" wireline services like home health care monitoring.
The proposal — which is likely to carry weight as it comes from powerhouses of both content and broadband services — is an answer to the so-called "net neutrality" debate. Proponents for net neutrality demand that any Internet content or service be delivered by any broadband or wireless provider. The fear is that consumers would be charged extra for some content, like cable TV programming, or blocked from certain activities in order for the broadband provider to gain some competitive advantage.
Here, Google and Verizon are arguing that, for the most part, wireline services like cable, fiber-optic or DSL broadband should be required to maintain a network that gives consumers "access to all legal content on the Internet, and can use what applications, services and devices they choose."
This would ensure that broadband providers wouldn't curb access to competitors, according to the proposal. Not only that, they couldn't even charge extra to deliver some services over others.
The proposal argues for transparency. Consumers must be "fully informed about their Internet experiences." If there was some kind of interruption in services, the broadband provider would be required to explain it. The FCC would have the power to enforce these rules — using a "complaint-driven process" of evaluation — and to penalize "bad actors" with fines up to $2 million.
Though the plan includes much of what net neutrality advocates have pleaded for, there are two glaring omissions to the proposed rules:
1. "We would not now apply most of the wireline principles to wireless," says the proposal, "except for the transparency requirement." Meaning that wireless carriers — including Verizon's No. 1 ranked mobile subsidary — would be at liberty to provide preferential access to certain services, block others, and charge customers extra if they saw fit.
2. "Our proposal would allow broadband providers to offer additional, differentiated online services" that they could in fact charge extra for, and offer with limited access or with the requirement of specified equipment. The examples provided are vast: "Health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options."
Google and Verizon are clear about the possible misuse of such a loophole. The proposal cites "safeguards to ensure that such online services must be distinguishable from traditional broadband Internet access services and are not designed to circumvent the rules."
(For more on the powers and pitfalls of net neutrality, read Bob Sullivan's excellent Red Tape column on the subject.)
Of course, the two companies aren't making any laws here, just proposing guidelines. They close with a plea for other "stakeholders" to propose "constructive ideas for an open Internet policy that puts consumers in charge and enhances America’s leadership in the broadband world," saying they will work with "Congress, the FCC and all interested parties" moving forward.
This announcement comes on the heels of the FCC abandoning its own effort to gather major providers of broadband, wireless and content to discuss net neutrality guidelines, and only months after a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to make Internet service providers adhere to such regulations. Google and Verizon had previously denied they were in talks.
Catch up with Wilson Rothman on Twitter at @wjrothman.