The net neutrality debate is hitting a critical juncture. The FCC will soon say whether it will allow internet providers to give special treatment to some websites over others — in the form of paid “fast lanes” — or if it will reimpose the previous rules that required ISPs to treat all web traffic alike. For now, the smart money is on the fast lanes.
A big reason for that is because net neutrality’s one-time corporate champion, [company]Google[/company], is twiddling its thumbs while a group of relative lightweights like [company]Netflix[/company] and [company]Etsy[/company] publicly take up its former fight. While Google (like everyone else) has paid lip service to an “open internet,” and called for wireless companies to be included in the new rules, it has not come out in favor of using “Title II,” which is the FCC’s only legal option to impose net neutrality.
The search giant’s silence is causing chatter in Washington, where insiders offer competing, and sometimes conflicting, explanations for Google’s behavior. Here are four popular theories:
Google is hedging because of its Fiber ambitions
If broadband providers like Comcast are allowed to charge websites to reach consumers, a company like Google could be on the hook for coerced payments of the sort Netflix is confronting. So why isn’t Google raising hell? Some say a key reason is that Google is itself a broadband provider, through its Fiber program that is available in places like Kansas City and Provo, Utah, and is supposed to expand to 34 cities.
It’s true that Google’s overall share of the internet market is still tiny, and its expansion plans are going slower than expected. But if Fiber takes off, Google could feel constrained by any rules that force it to treat YouTube the same as other video sites or that would restrict Google from demanding data from websites in exchange for fast lane treatment. For now, there is no indication that Google aspires to such schemes, but it may want to make ensure its hand remain untied in the future.
A Republican faction in Google sidelined the pro-net neutrality majority
According to a person familiar with the company, Googlers have been making a stink about net neutrality at weekly all-hands meetings where employees put questions directly to the company’s senior management. Calls for the company to take up its former stance have allegedly been met with cheers by a majority of the audience.
The person, who did not want to be named, added that these calls have been thwarted largely due to former Republican staffers who now run Google’s PR operations in Washington. These include Susan Molinari, a former Republican Congresswoman who leads the office after succeeding Alan Davidson, an ardent net neutrality defender.
In this view, these DC politicos have had an outsize influence in persuading Google’s top brass not to take up a policy position that would be good for the company and the internet as a whole. This explanation, though intriguing, may overstate the case since Google is still outspoken on other Democratic causes, including climate change. Still, there’s no denying that personalities matter, and that the changing of Google’s DC guard must have affected the company’s strategy on net neutrality.
Google got burned by its last net neutrality fight
In September, [company]National Journal[/company] published an article titled “Netflix has replaced Google as the Face of Net Neutrality.” The piece, which provides a detailed and nuanced explanation of Google’s evolution on the issue, points in particular to the apparent fallout from 2010, which is the last time net neutrality was the fight du jour at the FCC — and when Google was a lead pugilist.
That 2010 fight saw Google caving to Verizon on the important decision to exempt wireless carriers from net neutrality rules (Google likely did this because it needed the carrier to promote its Android phones), and it was branded as a sell-out by its public interest allies. In this view, Google’s decision to sit out net neutrality redux is informed by its experience last time around: it took a bruising with no palpable gains and burned bridges with Republicans who might have helped the company on other issues.
This “specter of 2010” theory makes sense, but it also downplays the fact that Google is vastly more powerful than it was even four years ago. The company has twice the revenue in 2014 and far more political juice in Washington, meaning Google could fight — and likely win — if it so chose. As for making enemies, recall that Google bucked powerful members of both political parties in leading the charge to kill unpopular anti-piracy legislation (known as SOPA/PIPA) in 2012. In other words, Google isn’t gun-shy and can throw down wherever it wishes.
Google is all grown up
This is the realpolitik theory, and represents the simplest and most likely explanation. The point, which National Journal makes too, is that Google is a mature, diversified company that sits on both sides of many policy issues. The company has less interest in staking out idealist positions and, in the case of net neutrality, is rich enough to cut a “fast lane” check to whoever is demanding one.
There is, of course, an irony here in that companies like Google, and especially [company]YouTube[/company], might not have emerged in the first place were it not for net neutrality. But that was then and this is now.
Google still has time to change the debate in favor of Title II, which is what the vast majority of 3.7 million public comments appear to call for, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it to do so.