Earlier today news broke that AT&T had filed a letter with the FCC asserting that Google is violating net neutrality principles with Google Voice by preventing users from calling certain numbers. Google has wasted no time in posting a response to its Public Policy Blog to defend itself against the accusations.
For those who missed the initial letter: AT&T has long had to deal with local phone carriers who charge exorbitant prices to long-distance companies to connect their calls. These local carriers are further exploiting the system by partnering with phone sex operators and similar services to maximize the number of calls to these high-priced numbers. AT&T has tried to restrict such calls but was barred from doing so, and it’s angry that Google Voice — which does restrict calls to some of these pornographic numbers to save money — is getting away with it.
Google’s response outlines AT&T’s concerns over the local operator abuses and actually says that it too believes the current carrier compensation system is “badly flawed.” But then it goes on to say that none of this should apply to Google Voice, because it’s not a phone service.
Google writes that AT&T has tried to “blur the distinction between Google Voice and traditional phone service”, then offers the following bullets as evidence for why they are different:
- Unlike traditional carriers, Google Voice is a free, Web-based software application, and so not subject to common carrier laws.
- Google Voice is not intended to be a replacement for traditional phone service — in fact, you need an existing land or wireless line in order to use it. Importantly, users are still able to make outbound calls on any other phone device.
- Google Voice is currently invitation-only, serving a limited number of users.
Finally, Google closes out the letter by saying:
“The FCC’s open Internet principles apply only to the behavior of broadband carriers — not the creators of Web-based software applications. Even though the FCC does not have jurisdiction over how software applications function, AT&T apparently wants to use the regulatory process to undermine Web-based competition and innovation.”
So who is right? Google may well be correct in its interpretation of the current open Internet principles, and given AT&T’s history of fighting against net neutrality it’s hard not to take its arguments for it with a nice big grain of salt. That said, the notion that a call traveling directly over carrier lines should be treated differently than those that go though software applications seems to be a distinction that is quickly blurring. And from the consumer’s perspective, having some phone services that can call any number and others that come with restrictions seems like a setup that’s ripe for confusion.