Is Google Secretly Anti-Net Neutrality?
The Wall Street Journal has created a ton of Internet buzz, but not in a good way. In what now appears to have been a slam against Google, Barack Obama, and Network Neutrality, there are misrepresentations, misquotes, and pure fabrications seemingly tailored toward a desired end: create the appearance Net Neutrality is losing its most important supporters.
The article, by Vishesh Kumar and Christopher Rhoads, centers on a proposal between Google and unnamed ISPs “to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal.”
That fast lane would be created by a Google project “internally” called OpenEdge and, Google’s Washington Telecom and Media Counsel Richard Whitt adds in his rebuttal, Google Global Cache. The strategy is to place Google servers within service provider networks to accelerate the delivery of Google content, especially YouTube videos, to the end user. It works by placing frequently-viewed content geographically closer to users to reduce load times.
“The Wall Street Journal story is fundamentally inaccurate portrayal of the current Net Neutrality debate, both in terms of the corporate participants and the issues involved,” says Markham Erickson, Executive Director of Open Internet Coalition.
Whitt agrees and clarifies that “Google has offered to ‘colocate’ caching servers within broadband providers’ own facilities; this reduces the provider’s bandwidth costs since the same video wouldn’t have to be transmitted multiple times. 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.”
This is similar to services provided by Akamai, Limelight, and Amazon’s Cloudfront, and not some secret Google plan to undermine its public stance for Net Neutrality. It’s expensive, yes, and only companies with deep pockets can make such arrangements, but, as David Isenberg explains, arrangements like this are non-exclusive on the access-side of the issue, not the content-delivery side:
“…if Google does edge caching it buys access. It’s the same as when I, as a residential customer, pay $34.95 for one megabit DSL service or $49.95 for 3 megabit DSL.
The concern of Network Neutrality advocates is not with access but with delivery. The fear is that Internet connection providers would charge for expedited delivery of certain content to the end user, and in so doing would put themselves in the business of classifying which content gets enhanced delivery.”
Isenberg’s interpretation jives with SaveTheInternet.com, which also disputes the Journal by defining the discrimination aspect of Net Neutrality. Tim Karr writes, “Net Neutrality means that the Internet should remain free and open to all users – that we should be free to visit any Web content without network operators or others blocking, impairing or degrading our connection. It ensures a free and full exchange of information without discrimination.”
It is the access-discrimination issue where Stanford’s Lawrence Lessig—a vocal and important advocate of Net Neutrality—departs with how the Journal has portrayed his stance. The article claimed Lessig had “shifted gears” and “softened his opposition to variable service tiers,” or charging consumers for higher speed access.
Writes Lessig: Missing from the article, however, is the evidence that my view is a ‘shift’ or ‘soften[ing]’ of earlier views. That’s because there isn’t any such evidence. My view is the view I have always had.”
Lessig isn’t the only named source disputing his portrayal in the article. Whitt, too, who calls the article “confused,” takes issue with a quote attributed to him:
“The Journal story also quoted me as characterizing President-elect Obama’s net neutrality policies as ‘much less specific than they were before.’ For what it’s worth, I don’t recall making such a comment, and it seems especially odd given that President-elect Obama’s supportive stance on network neutrality hasn’t changed at all.”
Those interested can read Obama’s still-posted stance on Net Neutrality at BarackObama.com, where it says:
"Barack Obama strongly supports the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet. Users must be free to access content, to use applications, and to attach personal devices. . . .Because most Americans only have a choice of only one or two broadband carriers, carriers are tempted to impose a toll charge on content and services, discriminating against websites that are unwilling to pay for equal treatment.
"This could create a two-tier Internet in which websites with the best relationships with network providers can get the fastest access to consumers, while all competing websites remain in a slower lane. . . .Barack Obama supports the basic principle that network providers should not be allowed to charge fees to privilege the content or applications of some web sites and Internet applications over others."
This strong language is the same as it has always been from the President-Elect, and if there is a new stance, the Journals needs to present evidence, not broad, questionable statements. In Obama’s explanation, though, we find the technical fine line Google is walking. Though open to anybody wishing to make caching arrangements with ISPs, the expense of doing so is prohibitive for most companies.
While Google gets a definite advantage by these arrangements, the ISPs are not actively (and fearfully, arbitrarily) deciding which companies can and cannot make the arrangements. This is one area that would remain market controlled (depending on how staunch one’s neutral net view is) by a content-provider’s ability to serve its own content, but the ISPs would remain “dumb pipes.” Caching arrangements mean Google can connect to those dumb pipes without special favor.
The Journal appears to have jumped on this fine line to create the impression net neutrality supporters are either hypocritical or reversing course, and it has done so with some pretty cheap journalism tactics. Kumar and Rhoads don’t offer access to the documents (in this transparent century, that’s often necessary), they quote anonymous sources “familiar” with what’s happening and named sources who dispute what was said. Quoting “sources familiar” isn’t too far off in Journalism World from the “some have questioned” justification for an editorialized point.
Much of the complaints about Net Neutrality have originated over the increased delivery of video—also the reason Google seeks to establish caching servers—and the myth that bandwidth is becoming scarce. This brings us back to another choice quote from Isenberg:
“…the screaming about Internet video is loudest from the companies most vested in the old video entertainment model.”
"With the strong support of President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress, this is the moment when Net Neutrality has its greatest appeal, clearest need and best chance of becoming law,” said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press.