A rumored deal between cellphone service provider Verizon Wireless and Internet giant Google that would give preferential speeds to Google properties such as YouTube on mobile devices has net neutrality advocates on edge. Details of the agreement, as first reported by The New York Times, has thrown net neutrality advocates in a tailspin. By creating a two-tier Internet system, advocates say it not only exploits mobile users trapped in service agreements, but also works around years of wrangling over what constitutes a fair playing field on the Internet.
The Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) chairman, Julius Genachowski, came out strongly against the rumored deal, saying, “Any outcome, any deal that doesn’t preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet for consumers and entrepreneurs will be unacceptable.”
Timothy Karr, the campaign director for Washington-based interest group Free Press says the ramifications of allowing a distinct set of rules to guide mobile devices is significant because it’s not simply a matter of a consumer choosing what they like, but, rather, choosing what they like based on blinders imposed by their service providers. “The problem … is it exposes tens of millions of people who are now using handhelds, smart phones … [to get onto the Internet and] it has the potential to limit their ability to speak freely online.”
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According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 40 percent of adults use mobile devices to tap into the web, while marketing research company comScore calculated that 107 percent more people accessed the web through mobile devices in 2009 than they did in 2008.
According to Karr, the purported Verizon-Google agreement could kill off independent startups. Using Twitter and YouTube as examples, Karr said these two sites popped up on the Internet without having to clear hoops and were successful because of consumers. “Creators didn’t have to ask permission of the carrier … and it grew by virtue of its popularity” he said. Should the Google-Verizon deal be as The New York Times reports, however, Karr says that instead of consumers determining what succeeds, Google and Verizon would, because they would control what reaches the mobile audience.
The Communications Director for the public interest group Public Knowledge, Art Brodsky, also pointed out an additional drawback to non-neutral mobile web: service contracts make it difficult for users to simply drop a carrier they think may be giving a less-than-level Internet experience.
Net neutrality has been a contentious issue over which communications companies and the FCC have been tussling for years. The FCC has tried to assert authority over the wired Internet and insist that all content should have an equal shot at reaching users – meaning if a connection is slow, users struggle to reach every site equally, rather than having certain sites reach consumers more quickly because they are preferred business partners. The FCC, however, lost the right to rein in providers in April, and since then has been in talks with heavyweights from Verizon, Google and US Telecom, among others, on how to best go forward. At the same, time, however, some of these pro-neutrality companies have staked out positions on the anti-regulation side as well – ergo, a workaround like the rumored Verizon-Google pact, even though Google has billed itself as a proponent of equal access for all. Public Knowledge’s Brodsky says the logic behind playing both sides is obvious. “The mobile Web is obviously the future, the phone company’s know it” he said.
Money is also flowing heavily on the anti-neutrality side: the Sunlight Foundation found that in the first three months of 2010, anti-neutrality groups put $19.7 million in anti-regulation lobbying, compared with $4.7 million that flowed from the pro-neutrality side. The Sunlight Foundation also found that 74 members of the House of Representatives who demanded Congressional oversight guide FCC regulation have been long-standing beneficiaries of the anti-neutrality coalition.
Google stands by its net-neutral position and says The New York Times report is off base. “The New York Times piece is quite simply wrong. We have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google or YouTube traffic,” Google spokesperson Mistique Cano wrote. Alluding to Google’s legacy as a net-neutrality advocate Cano added, “We remain as committed as we always have been to an open Internet.”