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“Public Internet,” Private Plan: Verizon, Google Announce Joint Broadband Policy

Google and Verizon have announced their joint policy agreement on the Internet and broadband, seeking a continuation of the free and open policies around the public Internet while allowing for additional services outside of that network without a commitment to net neutrality and only a commitment to transparency.

On a conference call, CEOs Eric Schmidt of Google and Ivan Seidelberg of Verizon both announced the policy agreement, the outline of which is available here. While both of them criticized the New York Times story from last week and other reports about the two corporations backing down from a commitment to net neutrality (“almost all of which has been completely wrong,” Schmidt said, and asked reporters that they base their criticism “on what is actually announced today”), what they produced doesn’t necessarily conflict with the story.

The joint policy agreement makes a distinction between wireline and wireless broadband, basically the Internet you get on your computer, and what you can get on a smart phone, PDA, or some other not-yet-invented device. On wireline broadband, which the CEOs kept calling the public Internet, they displayed a full commitment to Internet openness and freedom:

First, both companies have long been proponents of the FCC’s current wireline broadband openness principles, which ensure that consumers have access to all legal content on the Internet, and can use what applications, services, and devices they choose. The enforceability of those principles was called into serious question by the recent Comcast court decision. Our proposal would now make those principles fully enforceable at the FCC.

Second, we agree that in addition to these existing principles there should be a new, enforceable prohibition against discriminatory practices. This means that for the first time, wireline broadband providers would not be able to discriminate against or prioritize lawful Internet content, applications or services in a way that causes harm to users or competition.

On wireless services, which as an example Verizon CEO Seidelberg used his company’s FIOS TV, the joint policy agreement only extends “transparency.” In other words, “providers would be required to give consumers clear, understandable information about the services they offer and their capabilities.” They would not be forced into non-discrimination requirements for content.

Google and Verizon were at pains to say that this does not represent any business arrangement between the two companies. “It’s just a joint statement to move the policy forward,” Schmidt said. For his part, he added that Google will keep all of its services on the wireline Internet because “we actually like the public Internet and we’re going to use it.” Schmidt vowed that his company would always keep YouTube, for example, on the public Internet. [cont’d.]

The FCC has had informal discussions with Google and Verizon over the proposal, and the CEOs expect the commissioners to review the proposal and make comments at some point. One of the seven principles in the document is allowing the FCC to have a new enforcement mechanism to regulate the broadband space, with the ability to impose fines of “up to $2 million dollars on bad actors.”

So basically, we have strict rules and enforcement of the existing broadband space, without extending those rules to mobile or wireless Internet devices, and just a nod to transparency, as well as a GAO report every year to assure that consumers are protected in that space. So you could have paid prioritization of content on these servies. It’s not so much a loophole as a giant black hole.

But both Verizon and Google insisted that this wouldn’t lead to a massive shift in resources away from the public Internet, and that they would try to maintain and expand capacity there. “Verizon and Google have a large incentive to make the public internet useful, because that’s what the users want,” Schmidt said. Both companies said they would apply these principles to their businesses immediately.

Seidelberg concluded, “Verizon is standing tall and agreeing to open internet. We’ll keep developing the Internet… But we want to continue to offer FIOS or anything else anyone has.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen