'Net Neutrality,' Google, and the Wall Street Journal

One of the reasons the debate over network neutrality is so confusing is that the term itself is so slippery. It has an engineering meaning to engineers and an ideological meaning to ideologues while to businesses, it seems to mean—not surprisingly—whatever best serves their interests.

The extent of the confusion became clear today with a story in the Wall Street Journal saying that Google, a leader of the net neutrality charge, “has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content.” What Google hopes to do, as explained in a blog post by the company’s Washington telecom counsel, Richard Whitt, is to speed the delivery of its content by “co-locating” servers within the networks of Internet service providers, such as Verizon or Comcast, a privilege for which it would, of course, have to pay. “Despite the hyperbolic tone and confused claims in Monday’s Journal story, I want to be perfectly clear about one thing: Google remains strongly committed to the principle of net neutrality, and we will continue to work with policymakers in the years ahead to keep the Internet free and open,” he writes.

Does this violate the principles of net neutrality? It depends on whom you ask. According to some purists, any scheme, other than simply buying more bandwidth, that allows some people to pay for faster delivery of their content is wrong. But Stanford Law Professor Lawrenece Lessig, the intellectual guru of the net neutrality movement, accuses the Journal in a blog post of his own of promoting a made-up drama. Lessig says he has always maintained that paying more for better service is perfectly acceptable provided that the improved service is available in a non-discriminatory way to anyone willing to pay.

My two cents: I think net neutrality advocates have to some extent been drawn into what is mainly a fight between two groups of major corporate interests--content owners and carriers--who are jockeying for position in a high-stakes regulatory battle. "Don't be evil" Google loves to position itself as the defender of truth, justice, and the American way, but when real money is at stake, it can be counted upon to act, as it should, in its corporate interest.

As a broader point, this controversy shows how difficult it will be for the new Congress and new Administration to translate their greater sympathy for the idea of network neutrality into policy. If we cannot agree on just what the principle means, it will be terribly difficult to devise policies to defend it.

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