Google and Verizon v. America: The anatomy of a poorly sourced article

Late Wednesday night, the New York Times dropped a bomb: According to unnamed sources, Google and Verizon–bitter opponents in the debate over net neutrality–had essentially abandoned their negotiations with the FCC in favor of working out a deal that would make both companies rich as hell while limiting Internet access for millions of consumers.

The two companies were “nearing an agreement that could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege,” reported the Times’ Edward Wyatt, without attribution. “The charges could be paid by companies, like YouTube, owned by Google, for example, to Verizon, one of the nation’s leading Internet service providers, to ensure that its content received priority as it made its way to consumers. The agreement could eventually lead to higher charges for Internet users.”

If true, the news that Google had capitulated on its commitment to net neutrality would cast into doubt the company’s reasons for investing $1 million in lobbying Congress in the months since a circuit court ruled in April against the FCC’s attempt to institute net neutrality.

If true, the story meant that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski had essentially failed to implement a signature policy that President Barack Obama had campaigned on.

If the news were actually true that Google and Verizon were plotting to upend the Internet, the Times story would have been been the biggest scoop on the net neutrality debate in recent memory.

But according to Verizon and Google, the story that appeared Thursday morning on the front page of the New York Times isn’t entirely true. And the only group that’s repeated Wyatt’s conjecture as gospel is the group that essentially wrote the net neutrality Bible: Free Press, a rabble of media reformers hell-bent on putting companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T in a regulatory straight jacket.

“The New York Times is quite simply wrong,” a Google spokeswoman told PC Magazine. “We have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google traffic. We remain as committed as we always have been to an open Internet.”

Verizon responded in kind. “The New York Times article regarding conversations between Google and Verizon is mistaken,” read a statement from the telecommunications company. “It fundamentally misunderstands our purpose. As we said in our earlier FCC filing, our goal is an Internet policy framework that ensures openness and accountability, and incorporates specific FCC authority, while maintaining investment and innovation. To suggest this is a business arrangement between our companies is entirely incorrect.”

Wyatt did not return a request for comment, and on Thursday, the Times published another story by the tech reporter on Genachowski’s reactions to the Grey Lady’s supposed scoop. “Any outcome, any deal that doesn’t preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet for consumers and entrepreneurs will be unacceptable,” Genachowski told reporters after cancelling a scheduled meeting in which Verizon, Google, and other interested parties were set to discuss the FCC’s net neutrality proposals.

The Times was not the only outlet to report talks between Google and Verizon. Bloomberg News reported that “The compromise as described would restrict Verizon from selectively slowing Internet content that travels over its wires, but wouldn’t apply such limits to Internet use on mobile phones, according to the people, who spoke yesterday and asked not to be identified before an announcement.” The Wall Street Journal reported that “People familiar with the negotiations said the companies have reached a tentative agreement on managing network traffic that could be announced as soon as Friday.”