Verizon has supposedly shown a new willingness to discuss adding a “fifth network neutrality principle” on non-discrimination in addition to the existing four principles in the Internet Policy Statement. Copps first called for this back in 2006, and reiterated his call for it again in the recently released Rural Broadband Report.
Specifically, Tom Tauke, Verizon Executive VP, is quoted in Broadcasting and Cable saying:
I'm not saying I am inviting a fifth principle,” Verizon Executive VP Tom Tauke told reporters Thursday at a press briefing, “but I wouldn't want to say that we couldn't find a way to live with a fifth principle.
On the one hand, this looks like something of a step forward from the other broadband providers, who still seem to think that repeating the same old arguments how metered pricing is inevitable and how network neutrality is a “solution without a problem” that will “strangle the internet with regulation” blah blah blah, carry weight in the existing political environment. Indeed, given the current political climate, the amazing thing is that other operators scrambling for a chance to negotiate and thus dilute any meaningful reform. Just last week, the President went out of his way in a cybersecurity speech to reaffirm his commitment to network neutrality. The Federal Trade Commission has flipped from opposing net neutrality because a duopoly is “highly competitive” to warning that a duopoly raises serious concerns about neutrality and consumer protection. And — despite the doubts of naysayers who expected the cable & telcos to kill any NN language in the broadband stimulus bill — Congress not only affirmed the existing four principles but required NTIA to consider what additional requirements.
Which is why warning bells ought to go off here. Verizon hasn't actually committed to anything or conceded anything. What Tauke's statement amounts to is simply a suggestion that Verizon might agree it could live with something unspecified in the future. While a welcome break from the endless “regulation of network neutrality will destroy the internet” mantra, treating this as anything substantive would be a serious mistake. I find it no coincidence that Verizon makes this statement just when the new FCC is finally coming together and Julius Genachowski prepares to take over as chairman. It has been no secret that network neutrality advocates hope that Genachowski will begin a formal rulemaking to adopt more substantive protections than the current principles enforced by post hoc enforcement actions and complaints. It does not take a strategic genius to see Tauke's comments as designed to delay formal proceedings in the hope of negotiating some form of “compromise” that could be blessed by industry, while developing new talking points and arguments for the creation of a tiered internet of the kind we have opposed for years.
The reality is that whether or not Tauke is sincere or is simply trying to undermine real network neutrality protections,a formal network neutrality rulemaking should be the first major item on the Genachowski FCC agenda. President Obama made the point in Cairo that real change will come to the Middle East when leaders stop saying one thing in private and something else in public. The same principle applies here. Verizon's apparent willingness to discuss a fifth principle it can “live with” should not somehow magically make the network neutrality debate disappear into backrooms. We need an open debate on the record, where Verizon (and hopefully other big providers) spell out exactly what they mean, where members of the public can respond, and where we end up with rules that we all can “live with” that also protect an open internet.