Chill The F*!% out over the Google/Verizon Proposal

In the last week or so since Google and Verizon put out their proposed legislative framework for dealing with net neutrality almost everybody has completely freaked out. I’m all for fighting to keep the internet open but a lot of what I’ve been hearing over the last week has been simply a mess of FUD, irrational screaming, and dogma. Let’s take a look at a number of the complaints that I’ve heard recently that drive me nuts:

Who are Google and Verizon to create policy and law?

Seriously? This is a proposed legislative framework, a device to express a form that net neutrality legislation could take. It’s not a binding agreement for anybody, it’s not anything that anybody other than congress could enact, and even then, there’s a lot more details congress would have to work out even if they wanted to rubber stamp it into law. Hell, the thing is only two pages long! This is often followed by something along the lines:

Congress doesn’t have any idea what their doing with this stuff, when they see two opposing big names in the industry coming to a consensus they’ll just put this into law.

Have you ever even remotely followed congress deciding anything. Nothing this public gets rubber stamped and a lack of domain knowledge has never stopped congress from having their own opinion before. Even if you ignore legitimate interests which congressmen might have to be for or against a bill based on the Google/Verizon proposal, it would be a massive political liability to blindly back something like this without making some effort to “refine” the policy. To top all of that off, we have one of the most partisan political environments in US history. If you think this will be treated as a bi-partisan issue which will be argued on it’s merits, you clearly haven’t paid attention to anything Congress has done for the last few years. If nothing else, since the Obama administration has expressed support for net neutrality, Republicans are virtually guaranteed to oppose anything which is perceived to deliver that in anyway.

Google has destroyed net neutrality and betrayed us! Why are they doing this!

I obviously have no special knowledge about Google’s decision making process or intentions but I suspect they are doing this because they have a much more realistic view of the current state of net neutrality and internet regulation than most people seem to. There are a number of more specific items in the proposal which people raise to support this:

Wireless Networks

In the proposal, it is suggested that wireless networks are left unregulated for the time being with the exception of new reporting requirements. People are screaming that this will be the end of the internet as we know it. This ignores the fact that this is the internet as we know it. All networks are essentially unregulated in regard to net neutrality and a number of carriers are already doing various forms of “network management” (link). Carriers are not doing the more aggressive or anti-competitive forms of management partially out of fear that doing so will trigger the creation of new regulations and partially because they know that it will make their customers freak out. None of this would be changed by the proposed policy. The policy explicitly encourages periodic review of this provision so carriers will still be concerned about triggering new regulations and they are not given any new protections from customers freaking out. So in what remotely rational way is this “the end of the internet”?

Additional Online Services

Again, this will “be the end of the internet as we know it!” and again this is the internet as we know it. Get your phone or TV from the cable company or over FIOS? Congrats, you already use additional online services. This doesn’t currently cause problems and if carriers do start using this as a mechanism for inhibiting competition there are systems in place to deal with that (the FTC). Especially given the provisions protecting wireline access the ways for carriers to abuse this are basically limited to shirking the resources available to “standard network services” vs. “additional online services” and this is already being taken care of by market forces. Virtually everybody I know who will realistically affected by limited bandwidth will do almost everything in their power to get FIOS as their competition’s bandwidth is generally awful. That gives Verizon very strong incentives to not cut back on the bandwidth they offer so that they can offer more additional online services. It’s certainly isn’t a perfect defense given the state of wireline competition in most of the US but it’s enough to make creating regulation to address something which isn’t a problem is a bad idea.

Reasonable Network Management

This is the place where there’s probably the most room for legitimate complaint. Depending on your point of view on the issue, any form of prioritization is a problem, regardless of the criteria. I’m not interested in arguing either way in this post. What is missed in almost all discussions of this topic is the fact that there is absolutely nothing preventing this from a legal perspective right now and it is almost certainly happening in wireless networks. Even if a policy is enacted which allows for “reasonable network management”, it doesn’t let the carriers do anything that they can’t do today and it doesn’t significantly change their incentives to avoid doing so.

Why Google Why!?!

Most people can’t seem to accept anything short of Google dogmatically pushing for “complete net neutrality” (with varying definitions of what that means). Again, I have no special knowledge of Google’s intentions but to me, this seems like a Google trying to get the discussion started in the right direction while keeping everybody engaged. If Google were to simply to make a statement pushing for “complete net neutrality”, it wouldn’t do anything constructive. By working with Verizon to come up with some initial compromises that might work for everybody to start with. Once everybody is engaged and have a common basis to work from, we can start working towards a realistic improvement beyond what we have today.

Is it perfect? Of course not, nothing done by such a small group, regardless of their collective influence, is going to address everybody’s needs. There are solid and reasonable arguments which can be made about much of the proposal. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that it helps anybody to scream “Google’s evil now, the internet is coming to an end!”. When faced with an issue this complex, with so many parties involved, there will have to be compromise. By definition, any compromise will have aspects each party dislikes.

If we (those who are proponents of net neutrality) do not look for ways in which we can reasonably compromise and simply repeat the dogma that absolutely everything must be completely neutral everywhere, we are, in practice, agreeing to keep the status quo and leave the actual decisions in the hands of others. If we are not active, engaged, and willing to work those who oppose net neutrality, then we might as well go home and give up. Look how well the dogma and FUD approach worked for Republicans in the healthcare debate. It got them a little of what they wanted, but at the end of the day it essentially left them shut out of the process.

What Google and Verizon have put forward is a renewed beginning to the long stalled conversation our country needs to have about net neutrality. If this is something we truly care about, we should provide support in addition to reasoned and constructive criticism. By doing so we can be actively involved in the process and improve what does eventually get put into place. On the other hand, if we spread FUD and freak out whenever anything is discussed that we don’t entirely like, then we will be dismissed as fanatics who cannot be reasoned with. It’s up to us to decide how we want to behave and what role we want to take in the process.

TL;DR: Chill out over the Google/Verizon thing. FUD and hyperbole leaves you ignored on the sidelines so cut it out.