Google and Verizon Want To Emasculate the FCC

Last Updated Aug 10, 2010 2:55 PM EDT

Rumors had been flying that Google (GOOG) and Verizon (VZ) planned to end net neutrality. The companies cried that they were misunderstood and that the original New York Times report was wrong.

Less than a week later, the two announced their plan. Google called it a joint policy proposal for an open Internet. A more apt name might have been a proposal to slice open the Federal Communications Commission and get it out of the way.

This wasn't the special business deal to advance themselves at the cost of others, as Dan Gillmor noted. And the proposal had some of the right words and phrases: open, consumer protections, transparency.

However, as Gillmor and others saw, the proposal would also have exempted mobile networks -- the major direction in which Verizon is moving and something Google expects to be a major business driver -- from everything but a call for transparency. In other words, for the two giants, net neutrality should die before reaching mobile communications.

But there's an even more disturbing angle that I noticed -- the quick and effective removal of the FCC's power:

  • The FCC could only enforce consumer protection and non-discrimination requirements. Such things as transparency in terms and network management would be outside the agency's sphere. That means a broadband provider could claim almost anything as network management, effectively putting traffic and service discrimination issues out of the FCC's control.
  • The FCC could only enforce consumer protection and nondiscrimination -- when it got to see them at all -- on a case-by-case basis. Even if there was a pattern of ill behavior on the part of a carrier, the agency could not make a general ruling. It would have to wait for individual consumers to bring forth their cases -- many never do -- and find that it had nowhere near the resources to keep up.
  • The FCC would effectively become subservient to the decisions and advisory opinions of "by independent, widely-recognized Internet community governance initiatives." In other words, if corporations could control the groups through packing representation, they could control the FCC's actions.
  • The FCC could provide injunctive relief and "forfeiture of up to $2,000,000 for knowing violations of the consumer-protection or non-discrimination provisions," but with the way the proposal would set everything up, that would likely almost never happen. Even if it did $2 million is chump change for these companies.
  • Under the proposal, the FCC would have authority over broadband -- to the degree its hands would be left untied -- but no authority over "Internet software applications, content or services." It's like saying you have authority to find the problem with a piece of hardware but aren't allowed to look at any software or data on it.
It's a mass of cleverly constructed language guaranteed to leave the regulatory body impotent. At one point I thought that a back room deal was the only way to get some honest acknowledgment of the real problems facing the Internet. I take it back, because two of the major players show that they're uninterested in any sort of control. And yet, the Internet is an infrastructure that has to work for everyone. It takes a party that can be a referee, which means a non-commercial body. For the good of overall business and consumer interests, the FCC must stay involved in a real way.
Image: Flickr user art makes me smile, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.