Earlier this week Google and Verizon pledged to uphold a set of network principles that could transform the internet into a husk of its former self. Let's look down the barrel of the Googlezon* future.
Keep in mind that the two-page Googlezon proposal, which you can read here, isn't law, though both companies have requested that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) turn it into a formal regulation. Even if it isn't law, though, Googlezon has stated it will follow the proposal's principles. And mostly those principles are harbingers of a dystopian media future.
Quick backgrounder on net neutrality
The Googlezon agreement was written partly in response to public interest groups and lawmakers lobbying for the US government to mandate "net neutrality." In a nutshell, net neutrality means that internet service providers like Verizon have to deliver everything – data, services, whatever – in a "neutral" way. For example, if we had net neutrality laws in the US, Verizon wouldn't be allowed to do things like make Gmail run faster than Facebook. Neither would Verizon be able to "prejudice" its consumers against certain services, for example by making any peer-to-peer traffic run really slowly.
Google has always been a staunch supporter of net neutrality, since its income depends on people being able to access the company's services quickly online. Imagine if Verizon demanded that Google pay extra to prevent YouTube from giving you the annoying twirly circle. Google's business model would be crippled, and you would probably have to start paying for YouTube access.
But nobody has successfully implemented net neutrality laws in the US. So if Google wants to protect its business, it has to make deals with companies like Verizon. And here's where things get ugly.
The internet becomes a pay-to-play medium
The the Googlezon agreement includes a section where both companies pledge to keep the "public internet" completely neutral. Verizon says it won't privilege some services over others (unless they are "special services" or "mobile services," but we'll get to that). And for its part, Google pledges that it will keep all of its services on the public internet.
But what the hell is this "public internet"? Isn't all of the internet public? Obviously there are internal business and government intranets that are private, and pay-to-play services, but the internet itself is by definition public. So why all this talk from Googlezon about how they'll keep the public internet neutral?
One simple answer, my friend: Googlezon is redefining the internet as a tiered service, like cable. And this new thing called the public internet is the lowest tier. Kind of like network television is the lowest tier in your television service options. From here on out, you will start to see the internet equivalent of cable service online: For an extra ten dollars, you can get the "movie lovers" package, where your ISP privileges Netflix and Hulu traffic, giving them to you super-fast. For another ten dollars, you can get the "concerned parent" package, which blocks peer-to-peer traffic as well as websites that they consider to be pornographic. And so on.
The "public internet" is for the poor
Pledging to keep the "public internet" neutral is great, but what happens when companies stop wanting to offer their services on it? Googlezon has the answer: In their proposal, they say that it's perfectly OK for companies and consumers to buy non-neutral, non-public "special services" online. If you're a media company that streams videogames, for example, your customers want a guarantee that the game won't stall out because of a crappy "public internet" connection. So you make your game available only to people with the special service "gamer package." Your customers pay you; you pay Googlezon; now there's a superfast connection for the privileged few with money to burn.
And what happens when news websites start delivering their pretty pictures and infographics in 3D? Verizon has already suggested 3D is a perfect "special service" to deliver in a non-neutral way. In five years, the public internet is going to look boring and obsolete. Where's the 3D? Where are all the cool games and streaming viddies? The public internet? Yeah, that's just for poor people.
But guess what's going to remain on the public net, the place where you go when you don't have money? Certainly there will be educational resources like Wikipedia. But mostly it's going to be advertisement-saturated free content from major entertainment companies. And of course there will be many opportunities to give your personal information to Facebook, or gamble away your non-existent savings on Zynga games. (Sorry - did I say gamble? I meant "pay for premium poker game content.") Put in brick-and-mortar terms: There won't be any produce markets on the public internet, but there will be plenty of liquor stores.
Big corporations truly rule the web
Though few businesses start without any seed money, it is still possible for a somebody with a good idea to launch their project online and attract investors once it becomes popular. When the internet is a tiered service, however, this will no longer be possible.
As Columbia law professor Tim Wu points out in the New York Times:
Just consider the power and public role of firms like Verizon or Google (especially if they work together). Sitting atop the web, they can influence what firms succeed or fail — by making sites load faster or slower, or end up on page 10 of search results. It goes further — in subtle ways, the information carriers have the power to influence elections and even censor speech they don't like.
What he's suggesting is that Googlezon will be a gatekeeper not just for new web services but also for content. The companies can choose to support services from any small business they like, and block others. Same goes for sites providing news or entertainment. Googlezon might make an agreement with the New York Times to load its pages faster than the Washington Post. And Googlezon might not load io9 at all, unless of course you're reading this blog via the Google Reader (as part of the "special service" package called "blogs and podcasts").
Googlezon could even strike a bargain with democratic political candidates to carry only their websites and block others. They could justify this by saying that people who want to get political information from conservatives can switch to another network that doesn't block them - or they can subscribe to the special "conservative service" package.
Your mobile is a battleground
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the Googlezon agreement is the companies' statement that there will be no net neutrality on mobile networks. Given that mobile networks are the future of how most people will go online, this section of the agreement is the most pertinent to any prediction about how this agreement will affect the internet.
Quite simply, the Googlezon agreement means that if you access the internet via your Android phone (or other mobile device), there will be no public internet at all. Your access to the web will be determined by your carrier, who may or may not offer special services - and who may decide to block any content it likes.
Googlezon proposes that every carrier or ISP will have to be transparent about what services it's privileging or blocking. But that doesn't mean these companies won't obfuscate their policies behind legalese. And even if your ISP honestly says, "We are blocking all websites run by Republicans," you may be locked into a three-year contract with them already.
Consumer choice when it comes to mobile networks is almost non-existent. Yes, you can sometimes switch networks, but in many areas of the world there is only one network that has coverage in your area. Besides, even if you research the local networks and choose the one whose policies fit your needs, there is no guarantee they won't change what they block once you're locked into a contract. And you could get locked into hardware platforms too - "get our movies and games package at half price when you buy a Droid!"
A burning vision of the internet in 2016
The public internet is basically overrun with 4Chan-like social networks that run very slowly and are drenched in advertising and spyware. You can watch some TV on the public internet, if you're willing to wait through long "buffering" times and bad commercials. You can play casual games, especially if you want to fork over a few bucks. There's webmail, though sometimes all your saved messages disappear - for "guaranteed backups" you need to subscribe to the special mail service via Googlezon. Plus, the only way to get to the public internet is with an unwieldy laptop, which sucks.
Most people go online with their mobiles. Anybody who wants to get access to games, movies, news, or other services online has to buy separate "special service" packages to make sure they run fast. Premium services guarantee you can watch movies on your Droid, or do your mail and calendaring on your Nexus SE234. An informal market in special service minutes springs up anywhere that people are too poor to get a mobile that does more than make phone calls.
Ironically, the public internet is the least public place online: It's an antisocial space, a crumbling, unsupported legacy network, full of ads and graffiti. Googlezon has succeeded in creating a caste system in the online world, and the public is the lowest caste of all.
Top image via English Russia.
Google's blog post on the proposal is here.
The Googlezon proposal also includes a lot of suggestions for changing the role of the FCC in regulating the internet, which EFF's Cindy Cohn explains admirably here.
Ars Technica has done a terrific job summarizing how the Googlezon agreement destroys net neutrality.
There is a great collection of opinion pieces on the agreement at the New York Times (which you can still access without the "special news service" package).
*Many years ago, futurists Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson made a video called EPIC 2014 about how media culture would be destroyed after Google and Amazon joined forces and became Googlezon. Today we face a similar threat, from a slightly different pairing – but the mashup name of the two companies remains the same.