Monday’s announcement that Verizon and Google will create a distinct wireless experience put net neutrality discussions not so much on the back burner as in the recycling bin.
Although early speculation suggested that the corporate giants were going to create the equivalent of an E-Z Pass lane for content providers willing to pay for higher content speeds, the actual plan is to create not just what amounts to a distinct “set of pipes” to funnel high-bandwidth content, but to also clearly define the wireless Internet as a rules-free zone that allows providers to determine what content reaches consumers.
According to a statement by the SavetheInternet Coalition, the actual proposal “isn’t just as bad as we feared – it’s much worse.” Like cable television, the Verizon-Google proposal would create a tiered access system for providers, but unlike cable, where consumers can choose what to watch, the decision lies with the carrier. This distinction between consumer control versus a provider-as-filter system is what troubles net neutrality advocates. “It creates an Internet for the haves and an Internet for the have-nots” is how Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior vice president and policy director at the Media Access Project described it in an interview with The New York Times on Monday.
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Critics of the two-tier system say that, despite Google’s spin that its proposal would foster innovation in the untethered web, they say this corporate optimism hides a very real potential for censorship. According to media advocacy group FreePress, there is precedent for concern, such as when Verizon blocked text messages from the Abortion Rights group NARAL in 2007, and when Comcast clamped down on peer-to-peer data distributor BitTorrent,. Further, the wireless web’s footprint is large: According to a July 7 report by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, almost 47 percent of American adults tap into the wireless Internet with either laptops or a mobile broadband card, and 40 percent of American adults “plug in” to the Internet using cell- and smartphones. Expand the polling to include minors, and Pew says the percentage of wireless Internet users jumps from the almost-half mark to 60 percent of the US population.
With corporations taking on the role of a filter, and with the NARAL text ban as a frame of reference, FreePress says the result would be an Internet “for the private benefit of deep-pocketed special interests.”
Google and Verizon’s proposal does set up rules regarding filtering. According to the plan, Verizon and Google would invest the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with authority over wired broadband that it was recently denied. “Our proposal spells out the FCC’s role and authority in the broadband space … and provides a mechanism for the FCC to use,” their plans reads. Google and Verizon also say their plan also empowers the FCC – to a certain extent – in the wireless realm because consumers could file complaints and the wireless web would also come under the scrutiny of audits by the General Accountability Office.
Critics say such measures amount to worthless gestures. Speaking with Truthout last week, Public Knowledge’s Communications Director, Art Brodsky, said “The mobile Web is obviously the future, the phone company’s know it.”
Some say it will also turn the wired web into a Potempkin village of content. “They are promising Net Neutrality only for a certain part of the Internet, one that they’ll likely stop investing in,” SavetheInternet Coalition said.