Google and Verizon have released a joint proposal arguing that broadband providers should be permitted to charge different prices for "differentiated online services" - a move critics say sets the stage for tiered Internet pricing.
In what they call a "Legislative Framework Proposal," the two companies outline what they describe as a "compromise" on the issue of "network neutrality," a concept that essentially dictates that all content on the Internet should be treated equally. The concept regularly surfaces in reference to the question of whether Internet service providers can deliberately throttle traffic to and from competitors, or charge different rates for different levels of access.
On the issue, the Google-Verizon proposal states: "Wireline broadband providers would not be able to discriminate against or prioritize lawful Internet content, applications or services in a way that causes harm to users or competition."
However, a key clause essentially frees wireless broadband from the proposal's transparency requirements, something Google argues is necessary "in part because the mobile marketplace is more competitive and changing rapidly."
Critics were quick to slam the wireless exemption.
"We feel like there are a lot of loopholes," said Matt Wood, associate director of the Media Access Project in Washington, D.C. "The complete exemption of wireless is worrisome because it proposes that there are two Internets out there."
The proposal also opens the door for companies to charge different prices for new services considered "distinguishable" from traditional broadband Internet. The two companies cite examples such as health care applications, educational tools and "new entertainment and gaming options."
The Google-Verizon proposal comes at a time when Internet neutrality regulation in the U.S. is in a state of flux. The issue came to a head in April, after cable giant Comcast won a federal court case against the Federal Communications Commission. The court ruled Comcast could essentially regulate traffic on its system, slowing down certain types of data (in most cases, service providers are concerned about heavy peer-to-peer traffic, which often involves sharing large files such as movies).
The court ruling threw into question the FCC's ability to enforce network neutrality principles. In effect, the Google-Verizon proposal is an attempt to fill the vacuum with a compromise between two sides of the corporate fence - companies like Google want Internet providers prohibited from stopping or slowing down the high-bandwidth content Web companies often provide, whereas Internet providers like Verizon argue they should be able to decide how to handle the increasing traffic on their networks.
In the network neutrality debate, there are two opposite ideologies at play, according to Michael Janigan, executive director and general counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a non-profit consumer advocacy group that has argued before the CRTC on numerous occasions.
The first is the assumption that the Internet, because of its crucial place in many people's lives, has intrinsic commercial value that can and should be exploited in the free market. The second is that the Internet is a public commons where "access and affordability" are critical to ensure that the Internet itself remains free.
"What is required, I think, is a firm set of rules that enable the users of the Internet to be protected against conflicts of interest that arise as a result of the commercial interests of the carriers and some of the content that they carry," he said.
"In the absence of rules, there's a collision of these values that is likely to continue to occur as the Internet evolves."