Google Finds A New Definition For The Open Internet

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If a lawyer, a car dealer or a lobbyist gives you a document you don’t understand, chances are he is misleading you. The proper response is to take a moment to figure out what is going on. Which brings us to the Google-Verizon White Paper on Net Neutrality that was released Monday with great fanfare by Eric Schmidt, Google’s longtime champion of the “open Internet.” It includes sentences like this, “Prioritization of Internet traffic would be presumed inconsistent with the non-discrimination standard, but the presumption could be rebutted.”

Indeed. Many have taken this document and cried to the hinterlands that Google is a turncoat, or as Adam Green opines on Huffington Post, “Google Goes ‘Evil.’” This sort of misses the complexity of what the Google-Verizon deal really means. Rather than hold the pure net neutral line, Google has decided to cut a deal with those, like Verizon, who want to turn the currently unfettered Internet into a set of toll roads, prioritizing some types of content over others as a way to mint money. In the proposal, which is still only a proposal, Google gets what it cares most about, a promise that wireline carriers will not block or slow down certain types of information on the current Internet, which Google now calls the “public Internet.”

But there is a tradeoff. Google gives two major concessions to Verizon: First, companies will be able to block or slow down certain websites or videos over wireless frequencies. Second, companies will be able to build “additional or differentiated” services on top of the current Internet, which would provide “traffic prioritization.”

In other words, Google is still in favor of an “open Internet,” as long as you define “Internet” to mean the current, non-wireless online universe. Rather than abandon its former principles, the company has simply redefined the terms. There are business reasons for the redefinition–it could hasten a resolution to this conflict providing certainty for future investment, it could give large companies like Google an advantage as the Internet evolves, and thanks to Android phones, what benifits Verizon can also benefit Google.

This is just an opening gambit, but it marks a major shift in the public policy discussion, which is now taking place both at the Federal Communication Commission and in Congress. For more on the implications of this change, see my story here.

It will be interesting to see how President Obama reacts. In the past, Obama has fully endorsed “net neutrality.” But that was before the terms started to be redefined. See the president talk about his views, as of February, after the jump: