It could have been worse. Last week The New York Times ran a story that declared Google was working on some sort of secret agreement with Verizon to allow Google services (like YouTube) to flow faster over Verizon’s networks than other content would.
If true, it not only would have meant that Google was reversing its long-held commitment to "network neutrality," it also would have meant that each of the major Internet service providers would have immediately cut separate deals with a variety of media companies, essentially auctioning off the "fast lanes" to their services.
So we held our breath for five days, hoping it was not true. Well, it wasn’t. Google is innocent of the charge of dealing away its principles for an unfair advantage.
But Google is guilty of once again acting like just another company with short-term interests to protect. This should not surprise us. Google’s modus operandi is to step into a vacuum that used to be the function of the state. Think about Google Books as a cheap replacement for libraries, which should be connecting people to all that learning. Or consider the clumsy pseudo-diplomatic role Google played earlier this year in its showdown with China.
We should have stopped believing the "don’t be evil" hype some years ago. Google has long asked to be treated as something special. But it’s special in only one way: its capacity for audacity.
Google revealed on Monday that it had reached an agreement with Verizon in which it trades away its avowed principles in exchange for — if not preferential treatment — then at least continued dominance and governance of what we might call the "classic" Internet: data flows that rely on moving packets of digital data across open protocols around the world, generally from wires coming out of walls.
Under this proposal, the classic Internet remains an area of potential experimentation, creativity, and — not coincidentally — ruled by Google. But the domain with the most intensive growth potential for new audiences — mobile and data-heavy services — would be locked down and controlled by Verizon.
So why would Google do this? First, Google gets neutrality in the "classic Internet," which Google rightly believes it will govern for some time.
Second, Google’s mobile operating system, Android, has been very successfully running on phones on Verizon's mobile network. So whatever data prioritization deals are being made in the mobile space, Google was going to be in the backroom with Verizon anyway. So it was never prepared to fight for mobile network neutrality. Mobile communication, therefore, would not be subject to neutrality. Verizon could discriminate all it wants against certain sources, applications, or firms. This means, of course, that there is no chance of using Skype to speak to loved ones in Afghanistan over the Verizon 3G or 4G network in the near future. The blocking and "network management" policies that Verizon institutes, however, would have to be transparent. So at least we would know that certain services won’t work and can’t compete over the mobile network.
Third, Google must have realized that the one area Verizon, as a wireline broadband provider, wants maximum control over are those data-heavy "special services." Verizon is betting that YouTube will matter less over the long run as people demand richer video experiences. Future, yet-to-be-developed, data-intensive services such as 3D video, medical data, or pay-per-view services would remain exempt from neutrality guarantees. This means that Skype would not have a chance to compete with any video telephony service Verizon might develop in the near future. And Netflix would be at a disadvantage trying to move high-quality video over Verizon’s fiber-optic pipes if Verizon decides to offer its own service.
Mostly, Google feared that the FCC would never get this done. Negotiations had stalled. Congress had no interest in pushing it. Neither did the White House. The major reason the companies worked on this deal is that they sensed a vacuum.
The Federal government had stalled in its efforts to generate rules protecting innovation and competition over digital networks. And it was clear that at least some FCC commissioners wanted mobile networks to work much like the open Internet that has been the site of so much dynamic entrepreneurship over the past 20 years. So these two companies decided to try to make policy because policy-makers would or could not generate a policy that would make Verizon happy.
So here is the good news: This is only an agreement between the richest Internet and advertising company in the world and the third-biggest American Internet service provider. The other big providers, Comcast and AT&T, are not part of this deal. And neither is the FCC. Right now, this is just a pledge between Google and Verizon. It has no force of law.
The scary part of the Google-Verizon deal, however, is in the fine print. If Congress or the FCC adopted this outline as basis for policy, the FCC would relinquish power to make rules in this area. The companies could. The regulators — who work for us — could not.
We can’t afford to give up the most exciting markets and networks to the whims and short-term desires of companies like Verizon. We can’t afford to let Google govern our information ecosystems. It’s time for citizens to take control of these issues and force our federal government to put our interests first.
Siva Vaidhyanathan is an associate professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia and author of the forthcoming book, The Googlization of Everything (and why we should worry). You can find him on Twitter.