Verizon and media-reform group Free Press ratcheted up the already-heated rhetoric over the network neutrality debate this week, with each accusing the other of distorting the facts and invoking disingenuous hyperbole to sell one another's position.
The latest salvo began on Monday, when Tom Tauke, Verizon's (NYSE: VZ) executive vice president of public affairs, policy and communications, delivered a speech at a conference in Aspen, Colo., during which he defended his company's joint proposal with Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) for a legislative framework that would set rules, with significant limitations, for prohibiting Internet service providers from blocking traffic on their networks.
Tauke, a former congressman, defended the agreement as a reasoned compromise that would protect the free flow of content on the Internet while also shielding ISPs from the burdensome regulations they argue would chill capital investment in broadband networks.
He argued that the agreement "parenthetically fulfills the president's campaign promise of nondiscrimination and transparency on the Internet," referring to then-candidate Barack Obama's oft-repeated promise to "take a backseat to no one in my commitment to net neutrality," a pledge he made at a Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
Free Press quickly shot back, denouncing Tauke's comments and arguing that the limitations of the Verizon-Google proposal are so expansive that any net neutrality framework based on the agreement would be tantamount to no consumer protections at all.
The group, which has been arguably the most strident supporter of rigid network neutrality rules throughout the debate, took particular issue with Tauke's coupling of a proposal it deems a sellout with Obama's address of the issue.
"Verizon is simply dead wrong in claiming their farce of a framework would fulfill President Obama's net neutrality promises," Free Press Research Director Derek Turner said in a statement. "Verizon can't hide the fact that, if enacted, this pact would mark the end of the open Internet era."
In keeping with the point-counterpoint nature of this debate, Verizon rebutted the latest from Free Press with a "fact sheet," contradicting the assertion that the proposed policy framework would leave the Federal Communications Commission too weakened to impose meaningful oversight over the industry.
"With action verbs like 'slam' and foreboding nouns like 'pact' and 'scheme,' the statement is a fun summer read," Verizon spokesman David Fish said. "But, like some other works of light fiction, it leaves one wanting more -- in this case, the facts."
For its part, Google has defended itself against charges from Free Press and others that it abandoned a cause it had long championed in developing the policy framework with Verizon. The company has acknowledged that in the spirit of pragmatic compromise it softened its position, particularly in the provision of the framework that would preclude the FCC from imposing neutrality obligations on wireless providers. But at the same time, the company said that it was necessary to give a little ground in a debate where positions had hardened to the point of deadlock.
The wireless exemption, coupled with the carve-out for speedy delivery for special services distinct from the common Internet, has rankled hard-line neutrality advocates, who have urged lawmakers to ignore the proposal.
Tauke defended the so-called managed services exemption, arguing that it would apply only to novel applications, such as smart-grid transmissions or telehealth monitoring, which demand quality-of-service guarantees and would exist apart from the consumer-facing Internet that would be subject to nondiscrimination rules.
"That requires a different set of rules than the rules that would govern the best-practices Internet," he told his audience in Aspen, disputing the "long perpetuated narrative of a two-tiered Internet," a charge leveled by Free Press and other long-time foes of the big cable and telecom providers.
"That too is wrong," Tauke said. "Dead wrong."