During the last decade, a battle has been brewing here in the United States. The outcome of this battle could decide who will ultimately control the internet – large corporations or internet users.
The internet was designed to respect the so-called "end-to-end" principle, which places control at the ends of the network with users and ensures that all traffic is treated equally. The upholding of this principle has come to be known as "net neutrality", which has been the status quo for as long as the internet has existed. But as the internet has grown to become the 21st century's most powerful engine for economic growth, internet service providers (ISPs), the middlemen of the internet, have begun greedily eyeing the web, hoping to wring additional fees out of users and content providers alike by instituting a tiered system similar to that of pay TV.
During the last three years, this fight has begun to come to a head. In 2007, the largest American ISP, Comcast, began to block its users from using the BitTorrent file transfer protocol. In 2008, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government body that is meant to oversee such matters, ordered the company to stop. In 2010, a court overturned that decision, contending that the FCC did not have the legal authority necessary to punish Comcast. In the wake of this decision and the FCC's subsequent existential crisis, large corporations have begun to devise their own rules. While there's nothing stopping the FCC from placing its authority on firm legal ground, the agency is under tremendous pressure from ISPs to not act.
This week's traffic prioritisation agreement between Google and Verizon (another one of the largest providers in the US) serves as a prime example of what will happen in the absence of clear rules of the road for ISPs. Two large companies have negotiated in private and have reached an agreement on how internet traffic should be managed.
On the surface, this agreement doesn't look too nefarious. Verizon has agreed to respect the end-to-end principle on its wired networks and Google has reiterated its commitment to net neutrality. However, the proposal specifically excludes wireless internet services. The agreement also proposes that so-called "managed services" on the wired network – essentially fast lanes carved out of the bandwidth currently used by the internet – be exempt from any rules that govern the web.
Finally, and perhaps most troubling, Google and Verizon have suggested that industry-led advisery groups write the rules for what's left of the internet. In matters of consumer protection and nondiscrimination, the FCC's actions would be subject to approval by the very companies that the agency is meant to oversee.
It's clear why this proposal is attractive to Google and Verizon. With net neutrality out of the picture, Verizon would be free to extract additional fees from content providers and users in exchange for access to the fast lanes. Google is large enough that it could afford to pay these fees, thereby assuring speedy delivery of its content and a competitive advantage.
But what about the rest of us? What will the internet look like if Google and Verizon's vision of the future is allowed to come to pass?
First off, the experience of accessing the web via a mobile device could change dramatically. Content from the largest companies – Google, Microsoft, Sony, Disney – might load quickly while independently produced content would load slowly. For an additional fee, you might be granted access to special "services" such as streaming video, online gaming and VoIP, all of which work just fine on today's internet. However, if you could not afford to pay for access to these fast lanes, your ability to engage in high-bandwidth activities would suffer, as these new managed services would receive priority over the so-called "public internet". And what would happen if, say, you noticed that your ISP was blocking your BitTorrent traffic? You could file a complaint with the appropriate government agency, but given the new rules, it is unlikely that the authorities would take any action.
As it stands, the Google/Verizon agreement is little more than a deal between two large corporations. It is unenforceable, non-binding and at present has little bearing on the rest of the industry. However, Google and Verizon hope that Congress will look to their agreement as a model for net neutrality legislation. These companies are proposing a regime where they write and enforce the rules of the road for the web. Are we willing to trust that the middlemen of the internet will act in the public's interest? Or do we want a clear, enforceable set of rules that ensures the internet remains a level playing field for all?