Google and Verizon, Again

The policy framework document for future Internet regulation, published jointly by Google and Verizon earlier this week, is still very much in the news, and has attracted a great deal of comment, most of it fairly critical, if not always very insightful.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation [EFF] has an article on their “Deep Links” blog, giving a summary of their initial analysis of the proposal.  It is a short, but interesting, piece that brings out some considerations that many commentators seem to have missed.

The article states one of the main concerns that the EFF has always had about getting to net neutrality via regulation: that a comprehensive regulatory regime would provide an avenue for various parties with substantial axes to grind a way to attempt imposing their views on the process.

The worst case scenario would be that, in allowing the FCC to regulate the Internet, we open the door for big business, Hollywood and the indecency police to exert even more influence on the Net than they do now.

The EFF thus regards one of the key ideas of the Google-Verizon proposal as a positive: that the FCC should not have sweeping rule-making powers, but give it the authority to enforce consumer protection and nondiscrimination rules.

In essence, it tries to limit the FCC to the type of authority that the FTC has — the authority to investigate claims as they are made.

Another good aspect of the proposal is that it would exempt Internet content from being regulated by the FCC.   The Internet does not need a morality squad or a thought police.

There are some aspects of the proposal that the EFF finds intriguing but troubling, where more detail and specificity are needed:

  • The use of technical standards bodies in determining what constitutes “reasonable network management”.
  • The possibility of “additional network services”

Their basic position, with which I agree, is that the ground rules for these must be carefully crafted to prevent the regulatory process being “captured” by a few large, well-funded participants, and to ensure openness.

Finally, they feel there are two truly bad parts of the proposal.  The first is the limitation of the nondiscrimination principle to “lawful content”, which is nowhere defined, nor is there any suggestion of how what is “lawful” might be decided.  It is not at all difficult to imagine the content producers’ lobby trying to create some exemption on the grounds that it is meant to prevent copyright infringement; it is also easy to imagine some sort of vague “national security” justification being invoked to justify breaking neutrality.

The second bad idea, according to the EFF, is the exemption of wireless service from all but the transparency requirements.  There really is no sensible reason I can think of for giving wireless services a free pass on neutrality, although I can certainly understand why the current wireless service oligopoly (of which, of course, Verizon is a prominent member) likes the idea.

I think the EFF’s ideas are interesting, and I think they are absolutely right to raise their concerns that the wrong sort of regulation might be a cure worse than the disease.

Google also has a follow-up blog post that contains their comments on some of the criticism that has been made of the proposal.   I’ll review some of those comments in a later post.

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