Recently, Google and Verizon announced their “policy framework” for net neutrality. Google calls this a “principled compromise our companies have developed over the last year concerning the thorny issue of “network neutrality.”” While the compromise may be principled, maybe even well intentioned, it is a big gamble on such an important social and economic resource and leaves wide open loopholes for the corporate takeover of the Internet.
It allows for the creation of tiered services that would be differentiated from traditional broadband Internet. And while overseen by the FCC, the role of the FCC beyond watchdog and complaint center is not defined well enough. This provision could easily creep into Verizon and other ISPs defining a completely separate parallel network, undermining traditional broadband services where the likes of Google, flickr, and Facebook were born in garages, apartments and universities.
Also, none of the neutrality rules apply to wireless networks. The argument being that this is a nascent industry and providers need to be able to throttle services as they grow their capacity. Again, this seems like it could be a reasonable argument, but my free market gut tells me that protecting network neutrality will spur innovation faster as providers attempt to capture fickle and impatient consumers. Also, there are other ways to protect bandwidth including charging for different levels of service or per gigabyte. The difference between this and tiered services is that service level plans apply equally across all content and applications and the end consumer pays the bill. A tiered service model would allow ISPs to charge content providers different rates to send content out on to the Internet, effectively creating an Internet toll road. So even though I’m still paying my $56 a month to Comcast, I may not be able to access the latest independent innovation at the same speed as it’s corporate backed brethren.
So why does this matter for planning? Because planning has benefited from having the infrastructure to share public information (including transit efforts originally spearheaded by Google). Open Source mapping and other tools are bringing down the cost of important information, which will increasingly benefit public planning processes as well as agencies. And there are yet to be developed tools that could continue to transform public access to government in general.
While the Internet runs on the backbones built by corporations, we need policy that looks at the Internet as important infrastructure that can benefit not only planning, but education, science, access to jobs, and so on. Government should put the right resources behind something so important to remaining competitive as a country. Instead of tightening access, we should be opening up this vital innovation and information infrastructure to as many people as possible.