US Outlook: When the US built its interstate highways, it was transformed. The rapid growth of the suburbs, new horizons for tourism and a revolution in haulage – vast opportunities unfolded when Americans hit the open road. The interstates are the proudest achievement of the Eisenhower era.
At its Eisenhower Moment, the internet has been let down.
Who knows what opportunities could open up as broadband and smartphone internet access expands, and as new high-speed services are invented? It would be nice to think that, like the Americans who took to their vehicles in the Fifties, everyone will have equal access. If just big businesses had been able to afford to ride the interstate, how much less progress would there have been?
This is the concept of net neutrality: that all traffic on the information superhighway is treated the same, no one's data is arbitrarily slowed down and that no high-speed routes are reserved for big business willing to pay for the privilege. It should be as easy for the single blogger to reach the rest of the world as it is for the multi-national media giant. The internet service provider shouldn't auction fast access to the highest bidder.
Despite being a founding principle of the internet, and a reason for its vibrancy, net neutrality has never been enshrined in law, and it is in peril. This is thanks to a "compromise" agreed between Verizon, a telecom company whose wireline and wireless networks make it one of the biggest internet carriers in the US, and Google, the source and destination of more internet traffic than almost any other company.
Google claims their cosy agreement on a statement of principles for web traffic has been misunderstood. Certainly, it has occasionally been misreported. Google insists on declaring it is actually supporting net neutrality, something it claims is different to "pure net neutrality". This has generated – deliberately – a great deal of confusion. The details are also complicated. (The Independent apologised for the inaccurate wording of one headline.) But no obfuscation can disguise that Google has climbed down in the face of demands from telecoms companies. In future, these firms want to be allowed to carve out pieces of the broadband internet on which to charge tolls. Google will no longer be standing in their way, and it won't be fighting for net neutrality over the increasingly important 3G and 4G phone networks, either.
The logical consequence is that there will be a ring fence around what we now call the internet, rebranded "the public internet". It will be starved of investment by the cable and phone companies, who will direct their efforts instead to creating new services on the adjacent "paid-for" internet, in cahoots with big US media companies. This is important stuff because every country is having some form of net neutrality debate. In the UK, BT suggested that the BBC pay for bandwidth its iPlayer is hogging, though happily it found little support.
It is a tragedy that net neutrality has lost its biggest defender, but the Google-Verizon agreement is not law. There is still hope for enshrining real net neutrality in legislation, and though they do not have the lobbying power of Google, Facebook, eBay and other internet pioneers have come out against the agreement and promised to fight. Congress has always been the right place to settle this issue.
Net neutrality is sometimes seen as a leftist obsession; free marketeers tend to argue that telecoms companies should be free to charge whoever they can for whatever it's worth. But just as Eisenhower was a Republican championing a massive government project – he did so because it was vital for the country's military security – the right ought to support a neutral network because it is vital for fostering competition and a new generation of entrepreneurial ventures. The next Google won't emerge fully grown, flush with cash and able to compete in the fast lane.
I don't think Google has been duplicitous here, and take at face value its promise to only operate within the "public internet". I think it is worse than that. It talks of its deal with Verizon in terms of "political realities" and the "spirit of compromise". In other words, it thinks net neutrality is already defeated. It isn't – even if Google just made it harder to win.Reuse content