As a long-time Web technologist, one of the many creators of the Semantic Web technology recently being put into use by Google, and a government expert on the Internet and Web, I find myself worried about the reported deal emerging between Google and Verizon. If, as reported, this would truly allow the differential handling of packets based on pay, then it would clearly be a threat to the net as we know it, and a potential disaster for the small smart-ups and freelance Web developers that are so important to our technology’s eco-system.
It is certainly within Google’s right to make money, and to use the Web technologies that were freely donated to the world by people like myself or, significantly more importantly Tim Berners-Lee (a strong proponent of net neutrality). However, allowing preferential packet routing provides a means for the control and exploitation of these technologies that goes beyond the original intent.
The social affects are also quite worrying. I don’t see how a deal like this can avoid increasing the width of the digital divide between those who can afford enhanced service and those who can. It also seems like it will have different impacts in some societies than others, making Web behaviors even less predictable, and more susceptible to government control, than they are today.
Within the US, practice has maintained net neutrality where legislators have been remiss and where the courts have rightly been unwilling to impose policy in in the absence of legislation. The Google-Verizon deal has been reported by some Google fans as Google reaching a compromise with Verizon that might otherwise allow the latter to impose its own models, and by some others as Google clearly violating their own “do no evil” motto. Either way, it is a worrisome deal that is likely to set the precedent for many others, and to scare legislators from doing what they should: As a candidate, President Obama’s commitment was to net neutrality, stating that he would be second to no one as a proponent of a free and open Internet. The Democratic Congress has not rallied to the President’s side on this, nor have the Republicans rallied to their stated goal of providing a fair playing field for startup industry. The action taken by large companies to set their own rules is likely to cause these gun shy legislators to take an opposing action in a year where so many are fighting for re-election.
So I find myself joining those who are calling on Google minimally for more transparency into what is happening and preferably to continue their own opposition to preferential charging. In 2006 Google urged Americans to “take action to preserve Internet freedom.” Today their policy blog is surprisingly silent on the reported negotiations. My motivation to call on Google for at least a response comes from their own call – it is an action I take to preserve Internet freedom.
As a corporation dependent on the Internet for communication, on the start-ups for continued innovation, and on academic researchers to keep a flow of new Web technologies transitioning into practice, I hope Google will heed their own call to action and will do the right thing.