08.05.10

Google's Plan Could Wreck the Web

Google and Verizon may be close to a deal that would allow phone companies to decide what content you can look at. Tom Weber on a burgeoning assault on the future of Web browsing.

Don’t look now, but your snazzy new smartphone may be choosing sides in the seemingly esoteric war over “net neutrality.” Worst case, your phone could wind up morphing into something more like your cable box—with your phone company, not you, deciding what you can look at.

That’s the upshot of the news that Google and Verizon are nearing a deal that would cross a once-unthinkable line and allow some information traversing the Web to be treated differently.

Now comes word that Google and Verizon are hammering out a deal that would give some content preferential “toll-lane” treatment if the content provider is willing to pay.

Content providers (think Google, Yahoo, and that guy down the street with a blog) have traditionally argued that all data should be treated neutrally. Otherwise, the argument goes, the relative handful of cable and phone companies that deliver Internet connections to consumers would be able to play favorites—and potentially squelch the next embryonic YouTube or Tumblr before it can get started.

Still not clear? Here’s how one Internet expert explains it: “This ‘neutral’ network has supported an explosion of innovation at the edges of the network … Allowing segmentation of the broadband networks into capacious ‘broadest-band’ toll lanes for some, and narrow dirt access roads for the rest, is contrary to the design and spirit behind the Internet, as well as our national competitive interests.”

That particular Internet expert was Vinton Cerf, Google’s very own vice president and chief Internet evangelist (and, not incidentally, one of the brainiacs who helped create the Internet in the first place). But Cerf was speaking back in 2006, testifying to a U.S. Senate committee.

Now comes word that Google and Verizon are hammering out a deal that would give some content preferential “toll-lane” treatment if the content provider is willing to pay. Details are still sketchy, with Google tweeting that the initial reports are “wrong” and that Google has had no conversations about “paying for carriage of our traffic.”

But that denial doesn’t cover all the scenarios, and one of them is particularly intriguing. Bloomberg News reports that the agreement would have Verizon continuing to treat traditional wired Internet access as neutral in exchange for Google not opposing preferential treatment for some Net data on wireless phones.

This is a big deal because it could become a model to stave off federal regulation. The Federal Communications Commission had been pushing for authority to regulate broadband and ensure net neutrality, but then moved to host industry negotiations amid resistance to giving the FCC more control. (Among other things, the issue has become a rallying point with some Tea Party elements who see dark motives in the FCC’s efforts on neutrality.) Now, following reports about the Google-Verizon talks, the FCC has canceled coming negotiations.

So what changed from 2006, when Google spoke so forcefully against any preferential treatment for data, to 2010? Basically, your cellphone got a lot more interesting, and profitable, too. It evolved from a way to make calls and exchange emails into a full-fledged spigot for the Internet, capable of showing video and more.

On one side of the great phone wars are Apple and its partner AT&T, which jointly offer the iPhone. The iPhone’s incredible success has put Google on the defensive with its Android system. In that context, Verizon makes for a pretty good partner to battle the fearsome iPhone—and conceivably makes a compromise more palatable to Google than back in 2006.

And that brings us to why your phone could look a lot more like a cable box in the future. When you’re watching cable TV, the options you get to choose from are far from neutral. They represent high-stakes business agreements between content providers and your cable company. And sometimes the two sides can’t reach an agreement.

Fans of the New York Yankees know this well. Back in 2002, those who were customers of Cablevision in some parts of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut missed more than 100 games while Cablevision and the then-new YES Network bickered over terms. And this year, ABC and Cablevision fought it out over the Oscars. (In that battle, ABC wanted more money from Cablevision, but the smartphone scenarios could flip things the other way, with content providers paying to make sure cellphone users can access their programming.)

Already, the smartphone world is evolving differently than the old Wild West of the Web. Apple exercises veto control on each and every app created for the iPhone, meaning content creators must bow to Apple’s wishes. But in cases where Apple has said no to an app, content creators can still connect with iPhone users over the device’s unfettered Web access. Google did exactly that when Apple turned down its Google Voice app.

Any deal reached by Google and Verizon is likely to sound innocuous now, but if it allows for any preferential treatment for Internet data sent over the wireless network, it crosses the bright line that ends neutrality and opens up the possibility of the phone company, not you, making decisions about what you can do online.

Thomas E. Weber covers technology for The Daily Beast. He is a former bureau chief and columnist at The Wall Street Journal and was editor of the award-winning SmartMoney.com. Follow him on Twitter.