Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What's Really Going On with Google and Net Neutrality...

To what extent do companies like Google actually mean what they publicly say about net neutrality?

This is the question that reluctantly must be asked after the latest storm that's raging like a tornado in cyberspace. The catalyst was this piece by the Wall Street Journal yesterday reporting that Google - the most prominent advocate of net neutrality in the past - has secretly "approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content".

Such a deal would be a direct violation of net neutrality - the so-called First Amendment of the internet which states that all online content be treated equally regardless of the type of content, its originating source, or destination. Understanding the issue boils down to this: broadband providers have wanted to create an internet "toll-lane" where companies could pay thousands of dollars per month so that their content would reach users faster, however supporters of net neutrality have argued that such a system would give giant corporations an unfair systemic advantage over new startups, universities, and individuals.

Google and others have long publicly supported net neutrality, which is why the Wall Street Journal's report is so unsettling. In addition to its claim that Google has approached the broadband providers about circumventing net neutrality principles, it also states that Microsoft and Yahoo have "withdrawn quietly" from the advocacy coalition and have "forged partnerships" with the phone and cable companies.

Was this leaked information, or was it inaccurate journalism? That's the million-dollar question.

Trying to head off the furor, Google today issued this blog post citing how the Journal piece was grossly inaccurate, and that it irresponsibly confused net neutrality with a practice known as "edge caching". "We've always said that broadband providers can engage in activities like colocation and caching, so long as they do so on a non-discriminatory basis."

What exactly is meant by "non-discriminatory" is also a topic of dispute. The New York Times threw in their two cents by adding...

Google isn’t being as hypocritical as The Journal story made out. But it shares the some of the blame for the sloppy rhetoric used by advocates of network neutrality. Sometimes the issue is framed as a total bandwidth egalitarianism, when that’s not really what they want.

There is a huge fight here, not over whether there will be first class and coach seats, but how those seats will be priced and who will pay for them. Google and others are saying that, in effect, every seat in the same class of service should have the same price, and that Internet providers can’t add surcharges to companies they don’t like or give discounts to those they do.

As this drama continues to unfold, many of us who are actually supporters of net neutrality are left shaking our heads. I'm inclined to give Google the benefit of the doubt - particularly after getting endorsements today from scholars I respect like Lawrence Lessig and David Isenberg. However, the Wall Street Journal is still sticking by its story, and because of the specter of its possible truth, I'd be lying if I said my confidence wasn't at least shaken.


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