Imagine an Internet divvied up like the cabin of an airplane -- first-class content for those willing to pay a premium and basic services for everyone else.
If a new Internet proposal from Google and Verizon becomes policy, some Internet law experts say a tiered, private Internet could become reality.
On Monday, the two tech giants made waves with a joint proposal on how to manage Internet traffic. As more and more information travels across the Web, the companies said Internet service providers (ISPs) should not be allowed to block some kinds of content or fast-track others.
"It is imperative that we find ways to protect the future openness of the Internet and encourage the rapid deployment of broadband," Google wrote Monday on its public policy blog. "Verizon and Google are pleased to discuss the principled compromise our companies have developed over the last year concerning the thorny issue of 'network neutrality.'"
But despite their stated goal of protecting the "open Web," the companies also included a provision for "additional online services" and didn't mention rules for wireless broadband -- key measures that some critics say open the door for a pay-to-play, "private" Internet.
In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post Tuesday, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg said that though prioritizing Internet traffic is harmful, ISPs should be allowed to provide additional services to help them invest in broadband infrastructure.
"Internet service providers should also have a fair amount of flexibility to manage their networks and the opportunity to provide additional services -- such as telework applications, health monitoring services or optimized gaming -- so long as these services do not affect consumers' ability to simply access their favorite sites over the open Internet offerings that this framework would protect," the pair said.
In a press call Monday, the CEOs were vague in describing what the new service would be. But, according to media reports, when pressed by reporters to describe the "private" Internet, Seidenberg said an example could be a 3-D broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera.
In its blog post Monday, Google speculated that other examples might include health care monitoring, smart grid applications, educational services or gaming options.
Christopher Yoo, professor of law and communication at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said the additional paid services would enable Internet users to ensure a better and faster connection to the Internet for the functions most important to them.
For telecommuters who need reliable transmission between home and office, he said a new premium service could guarantee a quick connection, even during peak Internet hours.
For fans of the bandwidth-hungry, multi-player virtual game World of Warcraft, a special paid option could ensure hours of uninterrupted and smooth game play.
"Video conferencing and remote medical monitoring, which really cannot tolerate delays or cannot tolerate unpredictable delays, really need a higher level of reliability than the Internet can currently provide," Yoo said.