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Net neutrality: Meet the winner

Verizon's chief Washington lobbyist, Thomas Tauke, has the political muscle to turn his company's wishes into law.

Thomas Tauke must be one of the most ecstatic lobbyists in Washington right about now.

As Verizon Communications' executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communications, Tauke has spent the last few months embroiled in a fiery debate over Net neutrality, the concept that broadband providers must be legally required to treat all content equally.

And now he's won. Thursday evening, in a testament to Verizon's lobbying prowess, the U.S. House of Representatives definitively rejected extensive Net neutrality regulations in a 269-152 vote.

Now the telecommunications bill approved by the House heads to the Senate, where Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who heads a key committee, has been an ally so far. But in an apparent nod to companies like Amazon.com, eBay and Google that are pressing for Net neutrality rules, Stevens did say last week that he might be willing to bend and consider more regulations.

Tauke, a lawyer, is a former member of Congress from Iowa and former chairman of the United States Telecom Association, a telecommunications trade association.

CNET News.com spoke with Tauke about Net neutrality and Verizon's view of what Washington, D.C., might do next.

Q: What's your reading of Thursday night's vote in the House?
Tauke: We were very encouraged by the vote on Net neutrality, not only because it was a strong vote rejecting the Markey amendment, but also because we had 30 percent of the Democrats join us despite really strong pressure from the Democratic leader. We felt that in both cases the votes were strong and set the right policy direction.

(Editor's note: Rep. Ed Markey had offered the amendment mandating Net neutrality that was far more extensive than the rules already present in the bill. Click here for PDF of the amendment.)

So now we start talking about the Senate, which is sometimes more difficult to predict.
Tauke: The Senate is always an interesting challenge because the process is more open. We'll see how it unfolds.

It's fair to say that Stevens is committed to moving a bill. He'll probably have a new draft in the next few days. He seems anxious to have the committee move in the next few weeks and have it to the floor in July. That's a tight time frame.

Our hope is that Sen. Stevens and the committee will see the wisdom of trying to hold this bill to a relatively narrow set of issues rather than have it become a bill that addresses all of the issues that arise in the telecom space.

Won't it be easier for you to block a bill you don't like than for its supporters to get it enacted?
Tauke: It seems to me that there are two options. One is you get a bill that covers an array of issues and has broad bipartisan support. Or you reach a situation with senators saying, "We agree on these issues now and let's move on those."

Because of the urgency of addressing universal service, we think there may develop a desire to take those things that (have broad agreement) and move those. But you never know what might happen in the Senate. If this becomes a bill that includes every issue that falls into the telecommunications space then (it may become too controversial to go anywhere).

Do you think there's enough time before the November election for a final vote to happen?
Tauke: The big challenge is a floor vote in the Senate. If you can get the Senate to act on the issue, the chances of getting a bill through (a conference committee) are very high. The real challenge from a procedural perspective is being able to move through the Senate floor, in part because of the nature of the Senate and the need for relative consensus to develop.

What do you think of the not-entirely-serious proposal from Rep. Charles Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat, that would extend the concept of Net neutrality to Web sites like those operated by Amazon.com, eBay, Google and Microsoft? Would you support something like it as leverage against them?
Tauke: We have never tried to visit the worst aspects of regulation on other industries. There has always been a time when people have said, "Let's dump this on cable." Generally our posture has been that if regulation is hindering the development of an industry, we ought to get rid of that regulation, not visit it on others. I don't think we have any interest in visiting those proposed regulations on Microsoft, Amazon, Google or any of the other players in the Internet space.

It has puzzled me, however, that these companies have supported even the language in the Barton legislation. Principle No. 4 (click here for PDF) in the Barton language covers not just us. It covers application providers. Isn't that what Microsoft, Google and Yahoo do? Could eBay strike the deal they did with (Yahoo over) PayPal? I don't know if they could if the policies in the Barton bill were implemented.

The Net neutrality issue needs to be very carefully reviewed. We need to understand the problem we need to solve and be very precise in the language that's enacted in the statute. We've considered ourselves in the past champions of Net neutrality. But now that Net neutrality is so amorphous and covers so many things, we get nervous about sloppy language, unintended consequences and regulation down the road.

What precisely do you believe you couldn't do if Rep. Ed Markey's Net neutrality proposal had been adopted?
Tauke: The way we read the Markey amendment, we may not have been able to offer video services in competition with cable if his amendment had been adopted. Certainly we want to be able to offer the video services. We obviously believe that's in the consumers' interest.

Beyond that, one of the things that's interesting is that we're not sure what services would be prohibited. This is the innovation that would come down the road. There's the option of health care monitoring services done through virtual private networks with end-to-end security and end-to-end guarantees of quality. We do not believe this virtual private network would be permitted under the Markey language.

That's one reason we think it's a bit premature to start putting rules into place that may prevent the next service, the next innovation from being developed.

You've said that there will be no degradation of service for any content provider, but that enhanced-service options will be available for a fee. But what about content providers like Google and Yahoo, which put relatively large demands on the network? What if they decide they don't want to buy into your tiered-service offerings--would they still get the same level of service they have been getting all along?
Tauke: Let's take that a piece at a time. When we look at the Internet--a connection between, say, you and Google--there's three pieces: your access to the Internet, the Internet itself and Google's access to the Internet.

(You control your access to the Internet.) On the Internet itself, there is no company that controls access--it's a best effort, conglomeration system. The third piece is the Google connection. Google decides how many DS1s or DS3s or whatever other connections they're going to buy.

It's a long way of saying that (a) we believe the decision today is made by the consumer about what the level of access should be, and (b) we at Verizon at the current time don't make a decision in either case. It's the purchaser of network access that makes that decision. The question itself is not reflective of what we believe the network function to be.

Would you be happy with a Net neutrality law that explicitly let you offer video?
Tauke: When we have talked about the Net neutrality issue, we believe that first you should limit whatever regulation there is to the Internet access piece. The term got changed to (network) neutrality (instead of the more narrow Internet neutrality).

As we deploy this new type of network, we have virtually unlimited capacity to the consumer's home. One laser would carry video services. That's totally independent of other data. Another would carry Internet access. We think there will be other lasers. That could include things like health care monitoring.

If we are talking about just access to the Internet and what the policies should be for that, we are in a different frame of mind.

Does that mean you would not oppose a Net neutrality law that just regulated Internet packets running over TCP/IP?
Tauke: It depends on how we define Net neutrality. (Is it defined as former FCC Chairman Michael Powell's ""?) We might say that works and is consistent with what's the right policy toward the Internet space. But if it's defined in various other ways, we'd have to pause and say, what is it and what does it mean? It depends on definitions. If it's "shall not block access, degrade access or attach any device," we think that makes sense.

But if Net neutrality covered the Internet section of your fiber offering, you might have reduced incentive to invest and upgrade it in the future. Is that a fair statement?
Tauke: That doesn't compute for us. The reality today is that we have three primary services: video, voice and Internet access. What we do with Internet access is that we provide it, and consumers use it as they see fit. That's the world today. We're building a network that has more capabilities. We see Internet access as critical to the customer's communication experience for the foreseeable future, and we want to enhance that.

Suggesting that we would somehow reduce and impair the customer experience in that area makes absolutely no sense to us.

What do you think of the tone of the debate, and the appearance of pro-Net neutrality spokespeople like Moby and Alyssa Milano?
Tauke: I think it's one of the stranger debates I've ever been involved in. It's almost like we're debating what is beauty and how do we define it and regulate it? The problem is that everyone has a different definition of Net neutrality. If you look at the four major companies that are supporting the Net neutrality arguments, there are three distinct definitions of what Net neutrality should mean.

The question becomes which way do you think the market will better develop? If government sets policy today that dictates how the market develops? We think it should develop in the free market space, and government regulation should come in when a problem becomes apparent.

So why doesn't Verizon hire a famous spokes-model? Or -actor?
Tauke: For us that would be a real change in the way we do business. We continue to have this view that if you try to present the arguments and walk through the issues, at the end of the day they'll do the right thing.

Our sense is that's pretty much what happened in the House of Representatives.

If a law mandated only the FCC's Net neutrality principles (click here for PDF), would that be good enough?
Tauke: The FCC principles were not written to be in a statute. They were written in a fairly loose form. The question becomes whether that language is appropriate for a statute. Our sense is that the thrust, the spirit, the principles are on target, but putting that language in a statute is not a good idea.

The bottom line is that we support the notion and are living by the FCC principles today. But we think that just taking that language and putting it in a statute would be a mistake. It needs to be written in appropriate statutory language.

Have you suggested that language?
Tauke: Yes, we have.

Can you give us a copy?
No. We've tried from the beginning to work very constructively with policymakers. We continue to do that. We hope that as the debate continues, the gap narrows.

Would you rather see the telecommunications bill as approved by the House become law--or would you rather have no new legislation at all?
Tauke: No legislation at all.

What do you think of the D.C. Circuit's decision earlier Friday upholding CALEA Internet wiretapping rules for broadband providers? Verizon is already subject to them, so you may not have a strong opinion.
Tauke: Generally we have supported what the FCC has been doing with CALEA, with e-911. I don't want to suggest that we are opposed to all regulation. That isn't the case. There are public safety issues, there are legitimate law enforcement issues, consumer protection issues that are very much within the role of government. We consider ourselves to be a good actor in that space, and we don't want bad actors to spoil it.

We like the oversight. We like the idea of having clear principles and guidance for behavior in this space. What we don't want to have, however, are policies that (are counterproductive).  

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