BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, the tug of war over who controls the Internet intensified. The FCC wants to ensure that all content providers are treated equally, consistent with the principle called “network neutrality.” Internet service providers like Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon and AT&T say that the market will see to that. Tension’s been mounting ever since a federal court determined in April that the FCC has no authority to regulate the Internet. That means that theoretically the ISPs can favor certain content providers with faster speeds for a price, or block them altogether. Thus, they can make or break a business or a news site. Think about it. How long are you really willing to wait for a website to load? Open Internet advocates say that now both free speech and the innovation that fuels our information economy are at risk. The FCC vowed to work with the ISPs and content providers like Google to keep the Internet free, an approach that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski says does not involve regulating the Internet.
JULIUS GENACHOWSKI: It would preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet. It flows from a deep recognition that one of the Internet’s greatest strengths, its unprecedented power to foster innovation and free speech, stems from the absence of any central controlling authority, either public or private.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week, the industry’s negotiations with the FCC collapsed but it seemed that the tug of war over network neutrality would go on because 900-pound gorillas were pulling hard at each end of the rope. On one side, the ISPs, on the other, the FCC and Google. But this week, Google let go.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: In today’s TechBytes, backlash over Google and Verizon’s proposal to regulate Internet service, the companies laid out their vision in hopes it can serve as a framework for Congress and the FCC in drafting new rules.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The two agreed that so-called wireline Internet which comes into homes and offices, should be left free and open. But they said mobile Internet providers who service phones, should be able to charge extra fees to content providers for faster service to customers.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: No matter what the status is of the legality behind the document, the fact that the two major technology corporations involved in the discussion has backed this proposal means it could very well sway discussions about the future of broadband Internet in the U.S.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The proposal offered by Verizon and Google demands transparency from the ISPs. No more secretly stalling or dropping movie downloads because they eat up too much bandwidth. When ISPs use wires to connect the Internet, they must also observe strict net neutrality. Any blocking or stalling would trigger up to a two-million-dollar fine. But ISPs that supply wireless connections, say through mobile phones, may extract fees for faster service. That wouldn't necessarily affect your bill but it would affect the speed or the cost of the content you want to reach. Also, wireless ISPs could block competitive services. And when new services come along, like remote medical monitoring, they can hike the price of those. All of this strikes at the heart of how every one of us will communicate or do business in the near future. But it’s complicated. So, to distinguish among the parties in this high-stakes game, we'll try a time-honored oral device, the leitmotif.
[PETER AND THE WOLF MUSIC/UP AND UNDER] In the symphonic saga, Peter and the Wolf, Sergei Prokofiev assigned themes to Peter, the bird, the duck, the cat, Grandfather and the wolf. But assigning the bad guy theme in our story is tricky. Everybody thinks they're the good guy. So in the interest of fairness, we're not assigning the wolf’s theme. In our rendering, the net neutrality advocate, Siva Vaidhyanathan, who teaches Media Studies at the University of Virginia, is the bird.
[BIRD MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: If we decide that the only level playing field will be that wire coming out of the wall into our personal computer, we might find that we've relegated all the freedom in the world to the eight-track tape deck over the next 20 years, and that could be a terrible mistake.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alan Davidson, Google’s U.S. public policy director, is the cat.
[CAT MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
ALAN DAVIDSON: Yes, I think both companies ended up making some compromises in creating this proposal. It’s one idea for how to break the logjam that exists right now. And that’s why, from our perspective –
[CAT MUSIC] - protecting an open Internet is too important an issue for consumers to have it end in stalemate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: FCC commissioner Michael Copps is the grandfather.
[GRANDFATHER MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MICHAEL COPPS: The way I see it, it’s kind of a statement of intent that private parties are going to have more to say about the future of consumers’ online experience than consumers themselves are, taking public policy out of the equation –
[GRANDFATHER MUSIC] - and kind of betting the whole farm on the uh, future of the Internet being the province of gatekeepers and potentially tollbooth collectors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Verizon ducked our requests for an interview, so we had to rely on CEO Ivan Seidenberg’s public statements, as at the Annenberg School of Communications in April. Oh, and Verizon is the duck.
[DUCK MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
IVAN SEIDENBERG: The short answer to your question on this net neutrality issue for us is we're concerned that government wants to regulate every conceivable issue that could surface on the issue of access when, in fact, the market is going to eliminate those barriers over time, in any event. They're going to do it pretty fast.
MICHAEL COPPS: We have always had public policy that addresses the important national need of providing information infrastructure to every citizen in the land.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The FCC’s Michael Copps.
MICHAEL COPPS: And that’s why we had postal subsidies for newspapers back in the early days. That’s why we had free spectrum for broadcast. And to come now and say we don't need to have that because this technology, under the control of the private sector, is going to take care and be responsive and provide the news and information our citizens need to make intelligent decisions for the future of the country, it’s not happening. You know as well as I that we have fewer journalists, less investigative journalism in this country today than we had 10, 15 or 20 years ago, and we cannot afford just to sit back and think that some invisible hand is somehow going to make everything dandy, swell and peachy fine for the citizens of our country.
ALAN DAVIDSON: There are very valid concerns that have been raised.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Google’s Alan Davidson.
ALAN DAVIDSON: We understand that it’s a very political issue [LAUGHS] and that there are a lot of people who would like to see more in it, and we really respect that. I think what’s most important is that in the end of the day there should be some protections for consumers. And we did feel that it was very important to have a real strong open Internet set of protections on the wireline side. And, in fact, this is really the strongest proposal that we've ever seen a carrier network operator agree to, in terms of protecting nondiscrimination on the Internet.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: People are not fooled by Google’s claim that this announcement is going to somehow preserve network neutrality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Siva Vaidhyanathan.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Because enough people understand that the real excitement, energy and investment in this field is going to be in the mobile space and is going to be in those really cool experimental spaces like 3-D video and medical data.
IVAN SEIDENBERG: Soon wireless will be embedded in everything we touch -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg said this in a speech in June:
IVAN SEIDENBERG: - infusing intelligence into all our systems and presenting us with a whole new way to run a home or an enterprise or even a country. When it comes to innovation and communications, the U.S. has a clear decided edge. The smart phone revolution is centered in the U.S. The creation of tens of thousands of wireless applications is a U.S. phenomenon.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: If that’s where the experimentation’s going to be, we need it to be a place where the most creative entrepreneurial people are willing to invent things and develop technologies without having to slide their cards and enter the Verizon building.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s in this for Google?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: That’s a great question. When there’s a level playing field over the classic Internet, Google can win. Google knows that they have the best coders and the best vision for the open Internet, so they fought for it, justifiably, for some time. In the mobile space, Google is just another telephone operating system company, at this point. Google is in a close partnership with T-Mobile, in a close partnership with Verizon and is starting to get involved in AT&T’s business as well. And under those circumstances, Google knows that its greatest competitor is Apple. Apple’s a completely locked-down system.
[TIMPANI SOUNDS] A lot of the advantages of the iPhone, the reason it works so smoothly and dependably, under most circumstances, is that it is a closed, locked-down box. And Google understands that it has very little leverage to open up that environment, nor does it really see a return in having an open network over the mobile space.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I asked Alan Davidson why Google and Verizon sought to shield wireless services from FCC oversight. How is it different from the wired net?
ALAN DAVIDSON: There’s less bandwidth. There’s a greater need for network management. There are more providers out there than we've seen in the wireline space. So there are reasons to think that wireless may be evolving in a different way and may need different kinds of applications of the rules. And then the other piece of this is that it is a political compromise. Our hope is that even under this proposal there will be a path forward for openness and protections for consumers on both the wired and wireline side, in the long run.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The funny thing is the FCC could easily seize control of this situation. The court said that it had no jurisdiction over information services. All the Commission has to do is vote to reclassify the Internet as a telecommunications service, as it once was, and, voila, problem solved.
COMMISSIONER MICHAEL COPPS: I have been pressing pretty hard, saying, let's do this right away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Commissioner Copps.
COMMISSIONER MICHAEL COPPS: The longer it drags on, the more difficult it’s going to be to get this accomplished because you give powerful forces on the other side the opportunity to lobby and spend a lot of money trying to change people’s minds. And I think we have the obligation as a consumer protection agency to do our job, and we can best do that by reclassifying these technologies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you just declare the war is over. Where are your commissioners on this? I mean, why haven't you done it?
COMMISSIONER MICHAEL COPPS: I speak for one commissioner, and that’s myself. I am obviously of the hope that we have a majority here to do that. If our town square is going to be paved with broadband bricks, then we better make sure it’s operating in the interest of all of us and is not under the control of a precious special few.
[PETER AND THE WOLF MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But many in Congress oppose summary reclassification. They say they want the chance to legislate, though no congressional action is expected until 2011. Meanwhile, Google and Verizon are shopping their proposal around the halls of the capitol, where they find doors oiled by millions of dollars in telecom campaign donations. With a huff, and maybe a puff, they could very well blow those doors down. But that’s another story.