For years, Google has served as the most visible corporate champion of net neutrality, the principle that all packets should be given equal treatment on the Internet.
But with Monday's release of a compromise policy framework for legislating the issue with Verizon (NYSE: VZ), a long-time opponent of net neutrality rules, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) now finds itself cast as a villain by the same groups it has fought alongside in opposition to the cable and telecom lobbies.
"The agreement between Verizon and Google about how to manage Internet traffic is nothing more than a private agreement between two corporate behemoths, and should not be a template or basis for either congressional or FCC action," Gigi Sohn, president of the digital rights advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "It is unenforceable, and does almost nothing to preserve an open Internet."
What the companies proposed was a modest policy framework for targeted legislation that would give the Federal Communications Commission the authority to enforce basic open Internet principles, including a prohibition on prioritizing or discriminating against specific types of traffic on wireline broadband networks.
But critics like Public Knowledge tore into the proposal, both for its trappings of corporate intrigue and for the substance of the policies it recommends. Wireless networks, for instance, would be exempted from any nondiscrimination requirements. Cable and telecom providers would also be afforded the ability to prioritize and charge for swift delivery of special types of Internet traffic, such as smart grid or health-care monitoring services.
A two-tiered Internet?
But opponents say that the exemption for so-called managed services that are distinguishable from garden-variety Internet traffic, and thus meriting payment for preferential treatment, is too broad. The outcome, they warn, will likely be a two-tiered Internet, one where wealthy firms such as Google can strike side arrangements for expedited delivery of their traffic, and the general, public Internet that will be left to wilt.
"They are promising net neutrality only for a certain part of the Internet, one that they'll likely stop investing in," a coalition of advocacy groups, including Free Press, said in a statement. "But they are also paving the way for a new 'Internet' via fiber and wireless phones where net neutrality will not apply and corporations can pick and choose which sites people can easily view on their phones or any other Internet device using these networks."
Net neutrality advocates also lashed out at the proposal for limiting the FCC's authority to case-by-case enforcement. The proposal suggests that the FCC should not be granted rulemaking authority in the net neutrality arena, and should generally defer to "independent, widely-recognized Internet community governance initiatives" when disputes over traffic management arise.
But those third parties would almost certainly be offshoots of the cable and telecom industries, Public Knowledge warned, expressing concern that "the agreement outsources the FCC's powers and authorities to the very industries these rules are supposed to oversee."
Google defends its stance
Google defended its policy proposal as a pragmatic compromise on an issue that has put advocacy groups and many Web companies at loggerheads with the cable and telecom industries for years, disputing the charge that it had sold out a cause it championed for so long.
"Google has taken a backseat to no one in its support for an open Internet," Mistique Cano, a spokeswoman for the company, told InternetNews.com in an email. "We are not saying this framework is perfect but we believe that a proposal that locks in key enforceable protections for consumers is preferable to no protection."
At present, the FCC's authority in the broadband sector is mired in uncertainty following a setback at the hands of a federal appeals court in April. Over the past couple months, the commission had been meeting with stakeholders on both sides of the net neutrality issue, including Google and Verizon, in an effort to negotiate a policy framework for Congress to act on the issue.
Last week, amid reports that Google and Verizon had reached their own agreement, the FCC called off the talks.
Those negotiations were aimed at finding an alternative to the FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's proposal to reclassify broadband as a so-called Title II telecommunications service, a designation under communications law that would solidify the FCC's legal authority over the sector. That proposal sparked vigorous opposition from the cable and telecom industries, and inspired pointed criticism from many members of Congress.
It remains unclear what impact Google and Verizon's framework will have on the chairman's thinking, but it could defer the prospect of reclassification, at least in the short term, according to Stifel Nicolaus analyst Rebecca Arbogast.
"We don't believe the Verizon-Google proposal in itself will be enough to convince FCC Chairman Genachowski to definitively back off possible Title II broadband reclassification, as we believe he is looking for greater network neutrality safety safeguards and a broader agreement among parties," Arbogast wrote in a research note.
"However, despite the breakdown of recent FCC network neutrality talks, we do believe he remains open to the possibility of finding a compromise approach, and it's possible the Verizon-Google agreement could give him a further reason to hold off on reclassifying before the midterm elections, particularly in light of the political risks," she added.
FCC spokeswoman Jen Howard declined to comment on Google and Verizon's policy framework.
But for Michael Copps, the most liberal of the five FCC commissioners and an ardent proponent of Title II reclassification and firm net neutrality rules, the proposal came as an unwelcome distraction.
"Some will claim this announcement moves the discussion forward. That's one of its many problems," Copps said in a statement. "It is time to move a decision forward -- a decision to reassert FCC authority over broadband telecommunications, to guarantee an open Internet now and forever, and to put the interests of consumers in front of the interests of giant corporations."