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The Selling of the Internet

The first word we heard about the Google-Verizon deal was that they would keep basic net neutrality protections for computer-based Web browsing, but not extend it to mobile devices. But the latest news is that the deal would put tiers on the entire Internet.

Google and Verizon, two leading players in Internet service and content, are nearing an agreement that could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege.

The charges could be paid by companies, like YouTube, owned by Google, for example, to Verizon, one of the nation’s leading Internet service providers, to ensure that its content received priority as it made its way to consumers. The agreement could eventually lead to higher charges for Internet users.

Such an agreement could overthrow a once-sacred tenet of Internet policy known as net neutrality, in which no form of content is favored over another. In its place, consumers could soon see a new, tiered system, which, like cable television, imposes higher costs for premium levels of service.

This is the biggest fear that net neutrality supporters have. Right now, there’s basically a gentlemen’s agreement in place on the Web that no content gets special access or privileges. Congress and the proper regulatory agencies never codified the rule, but there were enough competing interests that it stayed in place. But with Google holding such a large section of the Web in its hands – and Verizon one of the few major players on the telecom side – it was only a matter of time before a deal like this took shape. And it’ll beget more deals, no doubt.

Josh Silver is right: this is the end of the Internet as we know it.

Since its beginnings, the Net was a level playing field that allowed all content to move at the same speed, whether it’s ABC News or your uncle’s video blog. That’s all about to change, and the result couldn’t be more bleak for the future of the Internet, for television, radio and independent voices.

How did this happen? We have a Federal Communications Commission that has been denied authority by the courts to police the activities of Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast. All because of a bad decision by the Bush-era FCC. We have a pro-industry FCC Chairman who is terrified of making a decision, conducting back room dealmaking, and willing to sit on his hands rather than reassert his agency’s authority. We have a president who promised to “take a back seat to no one on Net Neutrality” yet remains silent. We have a congress that is nearly completely captured by industry. Yes, more than half of the US congress will do pretty much whatever the phone and cable companies ask them to. Add the clout of Google, and you have near-complete control of Capitol Hill.

As Silver said, before long all radio, television, phone and other services could go through an Internet connection, meaning that powerful interests will be in a position to pick winners and losers throughout practically all forms of communication.

Save the Internet and groups like it have been outmaneuvered by big business. They never caused a critical mass to pressure Congress after the initial spike of activity around net neutrality. They never caused the FCC one ounce of pain. They just haven’t been aggressive enough. And as a result, the Internet is being sold and time is running out. Al Franken, who warned of this a couple weeks ago in Las Vegas at Netroots Nation, has a petition out, but it’s going to take a lot more than petitions.

Oh, and screw Google.

UPDATE: For their part, Google is publicly denying this, saying “We remain committed to an open internet.” But Google CEO Eric Schmidt seemed to confirm something yesterday.

UPDATE II: Ed Markey, net neutrality’s leading champion in Congress, is out with a statement:

“The potential deal between two broadband behemoths underscores the need for the FCC to act quickly to protect the free and open Internet. In the absence of such action, it’s increasingly clear that cozy cooperation between communications colossi will reign on the Internet. No one should be surprised that such companies will seek to slant the playing field in their favor, a result that will stifle the next generation of Internet innovators and short-circuit the economic benefits needed to power our economy in the 21st century. It is time for the FCC to step in to protect consumers, innovation, and fair competition.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen