The buzz in telecom policy circles this morning is the word that Verizon and Google are close to an agreement that will allow the search giant to purchase from Verizon a faster tier for delivery of its bandwidth heavy services, notably YouTube, its video-sharing site.
If the two companies reach an agreement, it could be a death blow to the entire “non-discriminatory” idea behind network neutrality: that no service provider should be give favored treatment to any service or application. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has made it a mission to get the “non-discrimination” principle encoded into law, to the point of calling for reclassification of broadband ISPs as regulated telecommunications carriers.
If Verizon sets up tiered pricing for Google applications, the non-discrimination genie is out of the bottle for good. It would be a direct "I dare you" challenge to the FCC to block it. Armageddon indeed. Adding to the significance is that Google itself is party to the deal. Until today at least, Google has been the loudest company behind the call for a non-discrimination rule, even as one-time allies have fallen away (the latest being Amazon.com).
As has been the case in the past, Google is sending mixed messages. The New York Times broke the story last night, and the Wall Street Journal followed up today, noting that a formal announcement could come as early as Friday afternoon. On the other hand, a Tweet about 10:50 a.m. ET from Google Public Policy Blog said flatly, “The New York Times is wrong. We've not had any convos with VZN about paying for carriage of our traffic. We remain committed to an open internet.”
Google’s public policy side has been left out of the loop before, so let’s take that denial with a grain of salt. The Times and the Journal seem to have enough detail to suggest this is not something made up out of whole cloth. The Times article, by Edward Wyatt, however, goes into more detail about the closed-door meetings (nine in the past seven weeks) that have been taking place on M Street ever since Genachowski unveiled his reclassification plan. The talks, according to an unidentified source in the article, have produced some agreement on smaller matters, but there has been little movement “on the few big issues that are the most important.”
You can read this two ways. The first instinct is to conclude ISPs are still at odds with the content providers over basic net neutrality rules. Or you can see it more dramatically: that the telecom industry is now at odds with the FCC’s net neutrality regulatory grab. Sure, there’s some Kremlinology to this, but when we see Amazon.com concede that 1) Internet content discrimination already exists at the edge, and 2) such prioritizing and partitioning serves consumers; then add the news of a potential tiering agreement between Verizon and Google, we begin to wonder if Genachowski has managed to pull off what years of policy disputes and rulemaking have failed to do: Unite the entire telecom and Internet industry against more regulation.