Google's Lame Defense of its Net Neutrality Pact

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Google has finally responded to widespread criticism of the framework it developed with Verizon for addressing the issue of net neutrality. Unfortunately, Google’s blog post on the matter borrows heavily from the semantic gymnastics practiced by the telecommunications industry Google has cozied up to.

Google Hasn’t Sold Out

The post explains that Google hasn’t “sold the tech industry out,” but instead, was engaged in a form of realpolitik by getting in bed with Verizon because nothing was getting done at the FCC and in Congress:

But given political realities, this particular issue has been intractable in Washington for several years now. At this time there are no enforceable protections — at the Federal Communications Commission or anywhere else — against even the worst forms of carrier discrimination against Internet traffic.

With that in mind, we decided to partner with a major broadband provider on the best policy solution we could devise together. We’re not saying this solution is perfect, but we believe that a proposal that locks in key enforceable protections for consumers is preferable to no protection at all.

That’s true, and that’s why last week, I called on FCC chairman Genachowski to man up and start moving the debate over broadband reclassification forward while also taking a lead on network neutrality. However, Google’s defense of itself is unconvincing. Go read the article in full, but here are the high points:

Wait, What About Wireless?

Google says the compromise was GOOD even if wireless isn’t included, because until this point, there was no regulation about network neutrality anywhere. It’s true that the FCC and members of Congress have tried for years to get network neutrality rules passed, but even after the Google-Verizon deal, there are still no network neutrality rules because this agreement isn’t law. Verizon will voluntarily abide by these rules, but it’s also an ISP with some of the fastest and fattest pipes around, so its concession is pretty trifling.

As for the selling out on wireless net neutrality, Google notes that discrimination on wireless is less likely because wireless is a more competitive industry, and because carriers are starting to allow open devices on their networks. It also notes that wireless providers have capacity constraints that make network management more important for wireless operators. I concede the last point, but a variety of factors from the amount of spectrum owned by Verizon and AT&T for 4G services, as well as device availability and high switching costs, make the nation’s wireless carriers less competitive than one might think. Additionally, open devices on networks are good, but Google knows that discrimination can still occur at the network level — and is likely to — regardless of what device is attached. If AT&T wants to block YouTube on its wireless network, it can, and phones, computers and anything else would be affected.

Welcome to the Best-Effort Internet

When it comes to the advanced network services carve-out (also known as managed services), Google defends its capitulation by pointing out that the compromise framework has safeguards:

  • First, the broadband provider must fully comply with the consumer protection and nondiscrimination standards governing its Internet access service before it could pursue any of these other online service opportunities.
  • Second, these services must be “distinguishable in purpose and scope” from Internet access, so that they cannot over time supplant the best effort Internet.
  • Third, the FCC retains its full capacity to monitor these various service offerings, and to intervene where necessary to ensure that robust, unfettered broadband capacity is allocated to Internet access.

The first two are so vague as to be almost useless in defending this carve-out. Whose protection is Google talking about in the first place? The ISPs’? The government doesn’t have all that many standards; that’s part of the problem. In the second item — any time someone has to quote their agreement verbatim in defending it there’s a problem — the quote indicates those words are likely the loophole that ISPs will drive their alternative Internet through. I mean, do you want the web or the best-effort web? Seriously.

The third item touches on something Google never addresses in its entire statement, which is the fact that the FCC is rendered fairly powerless by this agreement. So when Google says the FCC “retains its full capacity to monitor these various service offerings,” I’m not getting a sense of security so much as wondering what a powerless FCC can actually do about any problems that arise.

The Great Android Comb Over

Now we get to the fun parts, where Google insists that this isn’t a business deal and this isn’t about Android. There it’s telling a version of the truth. This isn’t a business deal. It’s a policy recommendation. Google is too big to ever have to pay off an ISP to get its content to users, so it has no need to make a business deal. However, other startups or smaller companies may not be so lucky. As for Android… Fine, Google, it’s not about Android. But here you sound like a balding man with a comb-over insisting he’s not losing his hair, and this post doesn’t really change my mind that Android is your comb-over.

The final myth Google wants to debunk is that this compromise isn’t about two corporations legislating the future of the Internet.

Our two companies are proposing a legislative framework to the Congress for its consideration. We hope all stakeholders will weigh in and help shape the framework to move us all forward. We’re not so presumptuous to think that any two businesses could — or should — decide the future of this issue. We’re simply trying to offer a proposal to help resolve a debate which has largely stagnated after five years.

Here Google is playing the kind of semantic gymnastics that lobbyists deploy so well. In a world where corporate interests (and sometimes their actual lobbyists) write legislation, Google isn’t merely an interested party proposing an idea for network neutrality; it’s a powerful influencer suggesting to overworked and under-informed legislative aids how laws should be written. Unless the FCC takes back control of this process, or Congress stymies any legislative effort because its members are reluctant to touch a hot-button issue during a mid-term election year, Google and Verizon’s compromise will influence policy in a way that common citizens cannot.

Google closes by saying that it hopes “this helps address some of the inaccuracies that have appeared about our proposal.” I would like to offer a similar closing on this particular post. I hope this helps address and clarify some of the semantic sleights of hand or obfuscations that have appeared in Google’s defense, so folks in Congress, those reading about it on the web, and those inside Google who want to believe that this isn’t a selling out of Google’s defense of the open internet can understand what’s really being said.

Ironically, Google may have thrown its reputation under the bus with this whole effort, only to see Congress stand by and do nothing because of the coming mid-term elections. Or perhaps Congress will take the framework and bastardize it to an extent that Google will rue the day it tried to move the ball forward on net neutrality at all. Politics are messy, and Google is learning this firsthand.

Related GigaOM Pro Content (sub req’d): The New Net-Neutrality Debate: What’s the Best Way to Discriminate?

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