The alleged Google-Verizon deal that's endangering net neutrality.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 6 2010 4:12 PM

Evil?

The alleged Google-Verizon deal that's endangering net neutrality.

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Since 2007, then, Google has stared down a potential future of increasing irrelevancy. It was in a position not unlike Microsoft in the 1990s, when that monopolist owned yesterday's platform (the operating system) while another was rising (the Internet). Google, like Microsoft before it, decided to try and conquer the new market while it still had time. In 2007, Google launched its own wireless operating system, Android, designed to compete with Apple's iPhone. While in some sense, Android represented an effort to extend its search monopoly to wireless, Google continued to define its mission in ideological terms. With Android, it was bringing "openness" to the wireless world the way one might bring democracy to the Middle East.

Another reason for Google's shifting position on net neutrality might be the company's sense of isolation in Washington policy circles. When it first came to town, Google was in conflict with the entire communications industry (Verizon, AT&T, the cable companies) and the copyright lobby (Hollywood and friends), not to mention authors, publishers, and the Department of Justice. Gaining Verizon as a policy ally provided something of a break from an otherwise unrelenting struggle—as a sign of friendship, the two firms sometimes file jointly to the FCC.

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Who has gained the most from the Verizon-Google marriage? Google and its CEO Eric Schmidt know much more about the Web than Verizon, and the latter has been able to learn at the feet of a venerable Web company. Verizon, in turn, has been able to teach Google about how to maintain a monopoly. Verizon, a descendent of the Bell Co., is steeped in monopolist culture. The firm long ago mastered the delicate art of suppressing competition and preserving a monopoly long past its due date. Indeed, Verizon, aka Bell Atlantic, has held on to certain parts of its telephone monopoly since the 1880s. As a relatively young monopolist, Google may have more to learn from the Bell monopolists than vice-versa.

What is most obvious from these flirtations with Internet payola is the need for federal oversight. The FCC should (finally) enact binding net neutrality rules using the authority vested in the agency by Title II of the 1934 Telecommunications Act. This means the FCC will actually have to write rules, rather than its preferred method of delegating rule-writing to the firms it regulates. When we are talking about deals between the nation's most powerful communications firms, the potential for abuse is obvious, and lack of oversight is not an option.

For Google, the scandal raises a different danger: that it will lose the trust of its customers. People use Google mainly because it is good and it is "free" but also because they generally trust the firm. No one trusts Google or any company entirely, but Google has always portrayed itself as an honest broker of what's on the Internet. If it's lying or playing favorites, that makes it harder to trust. That's why those people at Google who still believe in the company's founding principles need to take back the firm, so to speak, and understand that its wireless ambitions and Washington deal-making could damage the integrity of the whole venture.

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Tim Wu is a regular Slate contributor and a fellow at the New America Foundation.He is also the chair of the media-reform organization Free Press