So it’s official: Verizon and Google have (sort of) agreed on a way to break the deadlock on “net neutrality” – the highly charged question of when (if ever) Internet providers may differentiate the quality of service among users.
For the first time, companies with very different interests have found common ground on basic principles for regulating Internet access. But the limited nature of the accord only underscores the remaining differences between the two titans on the issue of prioritizing traffic.
Start with the good news. Verizon and Google agreed that wireless network operators should be permitted to manage traffic more or less as they see fit. Score one for the telcos – and, in our view, consumers, too.
They also agreed that Internet users should be allowed to send and receive lawful content and services, run lawful apps, and connect the devices of their choice to the Internet as long as they don’t harm the network. That’s just established business practice – chicken soup for the speechwriters. It can’t hurt, though, to dish up another bowl.
But they didn’t make much headway on the nettlesome issue of whether networks should be allowed to charge more for better service. Verizon wants the option. And so do we, because it is in the interest of consumers to give the broadband providers strong incentives to invest in next-generation technology. Google offers some wiggle room here – but not much.
The joint statement says that “Prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted.” We think (and Hahn, Litan and Singer’s research has concluded [Download Here]) that this is probably too high an economic hurdle. Why, for example, assume that paying more for better service is probably bad for consumers? Nobody questions the logic of letting United Airlines charge more to ride in the front of the plane.
On the positive side, the proposal does recognize the logic of allowing network managers to prioritize different kinds of Internet traffic – say, to ensure adequate download speeds for streaming high-definition video. It also allows for additional, differentiated services that can’t exist without priority access. So, maybe life-and-death activities like remote robotic surgery do have a future on the Internet, after all.
It’s nice to see that Verizon and Google are talking turkey. But there’s no getting past the reality that they are far from finding common ground on the core issues.