Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Google and Verizon – net neutrality and the consequences of short term perspectives

Posted in book recommendations, business and convergent technologies, in the News by Timothy Platt on August 15, 2010

The Internet, from one perspective is a seemingly all-pervasive system of communication and data sharing protocols and their implementations – a technological marvel that has pervasively come to be seen as a commonplace and an essential. The Internet is, however, more than simply a complex globally shared and co-created technology implementation. It is also the cumulative and ever-growing body of data, knowledge and experience that has come to constitute a shared culture with all that involves – the collective body of information and resources provided online through that technology. And the Internet and cyberspace have become essential forums in shaping and defining more physical world communities and society as a whole and for groups and for their individual members as well. In this the Internet has come to be one of the defining and shaping faces to both our private and our public lives and both individually and collectively. And central to that for many if not most of us is the concept of net neutrality.

There are arguments pro and con as to whether information wants to be free, and what that might even mean and for what information and from whom and to whom. For a good general reference that touches on many of the key issues in that, I would recommend:

• Benkler, Y. (2006) The Wealth of Networks: how social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press.

But the basic medium of the online experience and cyberspace have as a general rule been developed to be nonpartisan and neutral as to content, with no fast lanes for some content favored over other, and no premium channels that can out-prioritize some users over others for delivery – and certainly within the main Internet trunk lines.

This is the basic concept of net neutrality and it is in fact a very important one in both defining the Internet and in mapping out its reach and evolution, and both for understanding its path to now, and in understanding the paths forward it might take.

I have been writing a lot in this blog about ubiquitous computing and communications and our rapidly developing capacity for accessing and sharing computational and data resources and for communications from anywhere to anywhere all of the time. One of the proposals to limit if not effectively end net neutrality that Google and Verizon have been publically discussing poses a direct and specific challenge to that developing vision of the Internet to come, and to this major trend in where the Internet is headed – the carving out of special exceptions to net neutrality for handhelds and other rapidly evolving channels of connection and communication that are central to making ubiquitous computing and communications possible let alone practically functional. And to hedge their bets in this to make sure they have effectively targeted where the Internet is going, they have also left open a claim to be able to set aside other special channels too, details yet to be specified.

Wired connectivity will remain important, and certainly when that means wired to desktops, laptops and notebook computers with the last few feet untethered by Wi-Fi and similar wireless hotspots are included. But more portable formats and platforms are becoming more and more central to the ongoing online experience as well. So the exceptions to net neutrality that corporations like Google and Verizon would claim are really central to the Internet as a whole, and with ever increasing urgency to that. As such this may be a story of the moment, enjoying its minutes, hours and days of public spotlight but it is also an issue of wide ranging and long term impact and importance.

That said, I have to point out that even before this latest flap over Google’s and Verizon’s potential deals and even before questions came up as to the potential role of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate this, at least in the United States and for US-based businesses, net neutrality has already been under significant challenge and it has faced significant carved out exceptions.

Consider issues of blocked and permitted content, and without considering bandwidth or other differential cost of transmission issues that could legitimately be seen as impacting on the business models and financial strengths of Internet Service Providers (ISP). The People’s Republic of China is probably the best known country at least as of this writing for filtering and blocking online content per se, but that is a game many can and do play. Iran and a wide range of other countries do this too, at least for managing(?) access to specific topic areas where dissenting views may be considered problematical to them. And Google has famously become embroiled in this and certainly where China seeks to block online information related to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and their aftermath or the Falun Gong, or online information and opinion on any of a vast range of other topics.

Google’s corporate motto and self-proclaimed moral compass is contained in the expression “don’t be evil” and this is the standard of conduct they have publically professed for themselves to live up to. Google has also, it can be argued, compromised on that in its real world dealings on issues of net neutrality and on more general societal principles that net neutrality is intended to safeguard at least online. In this, the situation in China and the ongoing debate as to how much Google enables government censorship there can be argued as being based on agreements of necessity – if Google is to have any market at all in mainland China it must operate according to the Chinese government’s rules. Governmental rules of law and other considerations hold out potential for pressing for exceptions to net neutrality and related principles of many sorts and for many specific contexts when they serve as gatekeepers to significant levels of business opportunity and market development.

So I view this discussion of net neutrality and the new challenges that it is facing from Google and Verizon as fitting into a larger pattern and a more long-standing story. And bottom line this is not so much about access to the Internet or to distributing information resources over it as the general public would define the Internet, as much as it is an indicator that corporations can and do approach the Internet with a different vision and understanding. This is more a story of market share and access to markets that governments can and do control, and of money. And here, ISP’s and major communications carriers such as Verizon hold what is essentially the same control over access to potential communities of customers that governments do, at least for scale and potential level of impact on a business’ bottom line for a business such as Google.

Together this makes a situation such as we see develop between Google and Verizon a matter of public concern, as much as it is one of private enterprise and business model interest. And the one detail here that we can be certain of is that no matter how this particular event is resolved, and both in agreement between these companies and by updating the regulatory reach of organizations such as the US FCC, new issues like it will come up again and again, and on a regular basis even if not according to a specifically predictable schedule.

One piece of very good news that could come out of this event is a clearer understanding as to what concepts like net neutrality mean. Quite simply, what happens to one group of people in one country or region happens to all of us and everywhere, for the ubiquitous reach and influence of the Internet as a great enabler, and from our increasingly global interconnectedness.

But to return to this particular issue and source of conflict and concern, and the agreements under discussion between Google and Verizon:

• We are witnessing the consequences of a fundamental conflict between two visions of the Internet with public and community definitions based on principles such as net neutrality and open exchange of information, colliding with business model conceptions for companies such as Google and Verizon with their willingness to supersede that for short term gain.
• And this conflict is serving to bring into clearer focus an area where greater societal need calls for effective governmental regulation, but not of a restricting and limiting type as is followed where censorship is mandated. We need regulatory rules of the road that will preserve open and unbiased access to the Internet and both for content producers and content consumers where with Web 2.0 and the interactive web it is becoming impossible to draw defining lines between these groups.

And this brings me back to the core issues I started with. Long term, businesses must adhere to the principle of “don’t be evil” and a key to that is going to have to include embracing as wide and open a conception of what the Internet is as possible, that people and yes the marketplaces they work and live in be open and that all of our differences, strengths and capabilities be accepted and included. Short term profits become dead ends when you look out to longer time frames. Google and Verizon, and other corporations need to look beyond Internet as personal cash cow to more fully appreciate the type of vision I cited in my opening paragraph here and that most people as individuals would adhere to and certainly in protecting their rights and online access. And these corporations and others like them should start on that by backing down on their challenge to net neutrality and their short term vision of both their own and societal best interests.

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