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.
But though critics acknowledge that certain applications may require a faster, more reliable connection to the Internet, they also say that there's a way to provide that capacity without creating separate paid services that could threaten the integrity of the Internet as we know it.
"In order for the phone and cable companies to make money from a private Internet, they're going to have to write some kind of value to the person who's going to pay for it," said Marvin Ammori, a law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a visiting scholar at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet & Society.
"They're going to have to say, 'look, the public Internet isn't good enough for what you want to do and therefore they're going to have an incentive to under-invest in the public Internet. ... It's essentially, people say, they make coach uncomfortable so people pay for first class," he said.
Basic Internet services could be rendered so unappealing, he said, that companies like Hulu would want to cut a deal with Verizon or AT&T to reach consumers through a private platform.
But if a better video site came along, it would only be able to compete if it had enough funding to pay for a premium service of its own.
"Do you really want to structure a market such that companies that have the best deal with Verizon and AT&T are the ones that succeed?" Ammori asked.
Many of the Internet's greatest hits -- like Google, Facebook and Twitter -- were accidents, but a "pay-for-privilege" system could fundamentally change the dynamics that have made the Internet the force that it is, he said.
"If all of these guys had to go out and raise enough capital to be on the private Internet to compete with the dominant providers, you'd have a lot less innovation ... a lot less just whimsical innovation and interplay between users and developers," he said, adding that the proposal could create online business models similar to those in cable television.
A more equitable way of guaranteeing users a reliable and fast Internet connection, he said, is to charge people by usage instead of by application. That way, Internet service providers are incentivized to invest in the capacity of a single, stronger network as opposed to redirecting attention to other side services.
But though building out capacity is possible, it comes with a cost.
"This has been a long-standing debate in the engineering community," Yoo said. Although ISPs can build bigger pipes, he said, that makes it more expensive to bring broadband networks to the rural and lower income areas on the losing side of the "digital divide."
"I find it hard to believe that building bigger pipes will be the better choice in every situation," he said. "The devil is in the details. What we're going to see is the proposal leaves most of the details for later."
Andrew McDiarmid, a policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that though the Google-Verizon provision on "additional services" captures the right spirit, it doesn't include enough regulatory power for the Federal Communications Communication to prevent private services from replacing the open Web.
"What we would like to see when it comes to [advanced services] is some sort of model for priority that is user-directed, where I as a user say 'OK, you're offering me some faster speed but I want to choose what the faster speed gets used for," he said. "I think the idea is there, but it's just not quite an effective enough check against the squeezing out of the open Internet."