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One Good Outcome from the Wall Street Journal: Google Flap

Milton Mueller

On Monday the Wall Street Journal published an article alleging that Google was trying to arrange a "fast lane for its own content" with telecom carriers and contending that Google and Professor Lessig were in the midst of changing their position on network neutrality policy. The WSJ reporters received a lot of flak for the piece — justifiably so. There was no real "news" in this news article. Google's deals for edge caching and similar services such as Akamai, which speed up content delivery, have been around for years. Lessig's comments at an unspecified "conference" happened months ago. The WSJ's sudden interest in the topic seemed more like an attempt to poison the well as the Obama Administration and its net neutrality-friendly team ascends to power.

There is one useful outcome of this incident, however. It helps to clarify the relationship between bandwidth management and network neutrality arguments. As such it reinforces an argument IGP made in its paper on net neutrality one year ago. We claimed back then that advocates should not link net neutrality to a misguided "bandwidth egalitarianism" which asserts that any attempt to offer faster speeds at higher prices is evil. The cause of real net neutrality should assert the principle of nondiscriminatory access and focus on fighting ISPs and governments who block access to Internet content, applications and services for anti-competitive or censorial purposes. We warned back then that the chimerical ideal of forcing all content and services to "move at the same speed" would serve as a great way to discredit and ridicule the ideal of net neutrality. The WSJ was cleverly attempting to exploit this ideological fissure in the media reform movement, just as we warned someone would do.

We think that both service providers and end users should be able to buy better (faster) speeds at a higher price; the effect of such market competition will be to expand bandwidth for everyone and make those who consume more bandwidth resources pay more, while easing the cost burden on those who use less. The one saving grace of the WSJ provocation is that it has forced this issue into the open and made net neutrality advocates clarify their position on it.

By Milton Mueller, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy
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Jesus, Milton - I find myself agreeing with you. Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Dec 21, 2008 4:08 AM PDT

Though I think that the WSJ article was more dumb reportage than a clever attempt to exploit a fissure. But that's just me.

Very nice assessment Dan Campbell  –  Dec 22, 2008 9:10 AM PDT

Milton,

Your post does an excellent job in articulating some of the confusion around NN.  Indeed, too much is (over)stated about both sides of the arguments, and as you point out, not all forms of, let's just call it network engineering, constitute NN violations, and perhaps you are right to suggest that they only do if the tactic is clearly "for anti-competitive or censorial purposes".  Indeed, there is nothing inherently wrong with offering tiered service offerings, no different than an airline offering first, business and coach class seats.  I would argue that you can take it a step further and even offer differentiated services that are not necessarily application-agnostic but also are not some major NN violation with sinister motives on the part of the service provider.  It can be done in a way that benefits the end users.  The Internet has always been a platform of collaboration and compromise, where seldom is the extreme side of an ideal actually implemented.  Some NN advocates think too much of it being this ideal that cannot be challenged at all, like freedom of speech, without realizing that even freedom of speech, as much of an inherent human right that it is, has its limitations and exceptions.  Compromise as a result of practical technical and economical limitations will always be important on the Internet.

Google is becoming just another discriminatory infrastructure owner Anonymous Coward  –  Dec 27, 2008 10:21 PM PDT

Google is starting to engage in behavior that ought to rile “network neutrality” advocates — at least those that are not shills for Google.

Network neutrality advocates — especially the most extreme ones, such as Free Press — claim that ISPs, who are primarily in the infrastructure business but sometimes provide content and services, will use their infrastructure to privilege those content and services. But Google, which started in the content and services business, is now building out infrastructure which is exclusively devoted to delivering their content. (They say that others can deploy such infrastructure, but this is akin to saying that freedom of the press is available to anyone who can afford to own one.) So, Google — though it is coming from the opposite direction — winds up in the same place: as an infrastructure owner whose infrastructure can discriminate in favor of its own content. But there's a big difference. The claim that the carriers might discriminate is speculation and fearmongering. However, Google has announced, point blank, that it fully intends to discriminate.

The result is that advocates of “network neutrality” now face three conundrums. The first is that “network neutrality” is such an ill defined bundle of issues — with so many bags hung on the side by various interest groups — that it is impossible to discuss it sensibly as one issue. To date, many people who have opposed sweeping and onerous “network neutrality” regulation — including myself — have stated that they would be willing to support a narrow definition that doesn’t include all of these “bags on the side.” But this issue threatens to add yet another item to the bundle. Even for many supporters of “network neutrality,” it’s beginning to look a little too bulky.

What’s more, some lobbyists, especially those who are strongly aligned with Google (e.g. Free Press and Public Knowledge), have sought to dismiss “edge caching” as unrelated, because the issue is inconvenient and adding it would threaten their alliance with Google. But deep down, they know that it is actually more relevant than many other things which they’ve already opted to add to the bundle.

Finally, the advocates of “network neutrality” — in particular, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and Media Access Project — have always claimed to be populist but now find themselves to be very much, and very obviously, in bed with corporate interests. If they break with those interests, they will likely lose the generous financial support of the corporations, such as Google, which have driven the “network neutrality” agenda from the start. But if they don’t break with those interests, they will have so obviously sold out that they will forever have compromised their integrity and public images.

For all of these reasons, I would assert that it is time to dump the term "net neutrality" entirely and start afresh for the new year, hammering out a workable broadband policy unburdened by the baggage of the past. Let's start by defining goals (such as greater broadband deployment, good quality of service, and allowing innovation both by ISPs and by content and service providers) and by addressing issues related to those goals individually. We should start with the issues on which most people agree — for example, that anticompetitive conduct should be prohibited — and act only on those issues where there is a reasonable consensus. To instead rush headlong into legislation that attempts to treat the issues as an inseparable bundle — such as last year’s Dorgan-Snowe or Markey bills — would be a very bad move and would be detrimental to the country.

Ridiculous. The Famous Brett Watson  –  Dec 28, 2008 3:47 AM PDT

So, Google — though it is coming from the opposite direction — winds up in the same place: as an infrastructure owner whose infrastructure can discriminate in favor of its own content. But there's a big difference. The claim that the carriers might discriminate is speculation and fearmongering. However, Google has announced, point blank, that it fully intends to discriminate.

Google's infrastructure exists to support its service offerings. Google is not a provider of Internet access, and network neutrality as a concept only applies to the provision of Internet access. In my judgement, therefore, your righteous indignation is completely misplaced. Do you seriously object to Google spending its money on infrastructure in order to improve its service offering, and doing so in a manner that does no harm to anyone else?

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