Google Voice & the Slippery Slope of Net Neutrality Regulation

by on September 26, 2009 · 12 comments

Whatever you think about this messy dispute between AT&T and Google about how to classify web-based telephony apps for regulatory purposes — in this case, Google Voice — the key issue not to lose site of here is that we are inching ever closer to FCC regulation of web-based apps!  Again, this is the point we have stressed here again and again and again and again when opposing Net neutrality mandates: If you open the door to regulation of one layer of the Net, you open up the door to the eventual regulation of all layers of the Net.

You might not buy that story initially but if you doubt it then I invite you to read just about any history of American broadcast media regulation over the course of the past seven decades. (You might want to start with Krattenmaker & Powe’s Regulating Broadcast Programming or Jonathan Emord’s Freedom, Technology, and the First Amendment). In such histories you will find a common theme: Once regulation of media and communications platforms gets underway, the natural progression of things is uni-directional — Up!  That is, when new questions arise about how to “deal with” a new service, network, platform, or technology, the general tendency is the “regulate up” instead of “deregulating down.”  When regulators are given a greater say about the contours of markets as technologies evolve and/or converge, we shouldn’t be surprised that their first instinct is to “bring them into the fold.”

And, sadly, that is exactly what is likely to occur eventually with Google Voice. The only really interesting question is what else regulators start mucking with in the search and applications layer once they get their hands on it.  And if you still insist that I am being overly paranoid about “regulatory creep” and the prospect of the FCC gradually transforming into the Federal Information Commission, then consider what the agency had to say about cloud computing in paragraph 60 (pg. 21) of the FCC’s recent Wireless Innovation and Investment Notice of Inquiry, which was launched on August 27th:

As other approaches, such as cloud computing, evolve, will established standards or de facto standards become more important to the applications development process? For example, can a dominant cloud computing position raise the same competitive issues that are now being discussed in the context of network neutrality? Will it be necessary to modify the existing balance between regulatory and market forces to promote further innovation in the development and deployment of new applications and services?

Wow, who knew that the FCC even had the authority to oversee or regulate the cloud, right?  Well, they don’t. But, again, this is exactly how things have unfolded before: Throw statutory authority to the wind and slowly start extending the agency’s regulatory tentacles into new areas, services, technologies, platforms, and networks.  In this case, you can just imagine how some folks will use that FCC language to accuse Google of being in “a dominant cloud computing position” such that “the context of network neutrality” will be applied to cloud service (like Google Voice!) to “modify the existing balance between regulatory and market forces.”  Indeed, that’s pretty much what AT&T is suggesting in their letter to the FCC this week.

In a post yesterday over at the Google Public Policy Blog, my old friend Rick Whitt of Google insists that Google Voice is different than a traditional common carrier telecom service and that it doesn’t belong in the same regulatory bucket as those older voice services.  To Rick and my other friends at Google, I have only one thing to say about that argument: Good luck with that!  My prediction: Within two to three years you’ll be under the FCC’s thumb.

Again, I very much hope I am proven wrong. But I know that I won’t be wrong because neither side is going to back down in the escalating net neutrality war of mutually assured destruction.  “Regulating up” will carry the day and become, once again, our new telecom M.A.D. policy.

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