Google, being investigated by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for whether its blocking of phone calls on Google Voice violates the law, has essentially told the agency that it should be let off the hook because it’s cut back on the calls it blocks.
That’s like saying you’re only a little bit pregnant.
First, a little bit of background.
AT&T complained to the FCC that Google blocks calls to phone numbers via Google Voice in some rural communities, because Google doesn’t want to have to pay the access fees it would have to pay for putting those calls through.
AT&T says that because AT&T can’t block phone calls in this way, Google shouldn’t be allowed to, either.
Robert Quinn, AT&T’s senior vice president for federal regulatory affair, wrote to the FCC:
“Numerous press reports indicate that Google is systematically blocking telephone calls from consumers that use Google Voice to call telephone numbers in certain rural communities. By blocking these calls, Google is able to reduce its access expenses. Other providers, including those with which Google Voice competes, are banned from call blocking [by the FCC].”
As a result of the complaint, the FCC began looking into Google’s practice.
Google admitted that it blocked certain calls for financial reasons, and because many of them go to sex chat lines:
The reason we restrict calls to certain local phone carriers’ numbers is simple. Not only do they charge exorbitant termination rates for calls, but they also partner with adult sex chat lines and “free” conference calling centers to drive high volumes of traffic.
This practice has been called “access stimulation” or “traffic pumping” (clearly by someone with a sense of humor). Google Voice is a free application and we want to keep it that way for all our users — which we could not afford to do if we paid these ludicrously high charges.
Since then, Google has made some changes to Google Voice, and the company claims it blocks very few phone numbers. Yesterday, Richard Whitt, Washington Telecom and Media Counsel, had this to say on the Google Public Policy Blog yesterday:
“In our response today to the FCC’s inquiry about Google Voice, we announced that our engineers have developed a tailored solution for restricting calls to specific numbers engaged in what some have called high-cost ‘traffic pumping’ schemes, like adult chat and ‘free’ conference call lines.
Later on, he adds:
“To prevent these schemes from exploiting the free nature of Google Voice — making it harder for us to offer this new service to users — we began restricting calls to certain telephone number prefixes. But over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at ways to do this on a more granular level. We told the FCC today that Google Voice now restricts calls to fewer than 100 specific phone numbers, all of which we have good reason to believe are engaged in traffic pumping schemes.”
In other words, because Google Voice is blocking fewer than 100 phone numbers, Google is doing the right thing.
The issue here, though, is not the total number of lines being blocked, it’s whether any phone lines can be blocked at all.
Google has been a big proponent of net neutrality, and yet it’s now arguing that it can do the very thing that opponents of net neutrality want to do.
This is hypocrisy, pure and simple.
A network is a network, regardless of the underlying technology. In addition, increasingly the phone network and Internet are merging so that there’s less and less differentiation between the two every day.
As I’ve written in “Google + AT&T = Hypocrisy times two,” AT&T is as guilty of hypocrisy as Google.
AT&T has been the most vocal opponent of network neutrality, so they should be arguing that Google should be allowed to block calls.
Here’s hoping that the FCC rules against Google, and that net neutrality becomes the law of the land, whether the network in question is the Internet or voice.