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Google is sitting out the net neutrality fight. Here are 4 possible reasons

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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.

Image courtesy of Google
Image courtesy of Google

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.

Google data center

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.

11 Responses to “Google is sitting out the net neutrality fight. Here are 4 possible reasons”

  1. Daniel Sullivan

    It’s not really that complicated. Google engineers have make it public knowledge that 250 milliseconds (one quarter of a second) is all that needed to create a competitive advantage on the web. Because Wheeler’s proposed rules allow for paid prioritization, Google will no longer have to spend billions acquiring competitors–it will just price them out of the market. There is one reason: money.

  2. Jason Llorenz

    google is the example of ongoing technological convergence — just as we are hard put today to distinguish between a cable company and a phone company (because the Internet is the new host of everything), google will increasingly play across content and fiber, just like Comcast. Using Title II to lock in advantages on one side of that equation creates a case for regulating search neutrality too. Title II would be an overstep, and an unhealthy one for the evolution of the Internet economy – especially evolution of the pipes.

    Google, and everyone, wants to maintain an open Internet. But perhaps they are stuck in the crowd of loud rhetoric calling for Title II, knowing it’s not a good path to take, but unable to circle back on a conversation that has taken on a life of it’s own.

  3. Kristal Taylor

    As the saying goes, there are “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies…just permanent interests.” As the epitome of the Internet ecosystem, as infrastructure, application, and content provider, Google likely appreciates that enforcing net neutrality rules under the FCC’s current section 706 authority is its best bet to keep things flowing as they are. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…

  4. DC insider

    Google isn’t sitting out anything. It’s pouring millions of dollars into astroturf lobbying shops such as “Fight for the Future,” “Public Knowledge,” “Free Press,” and the “New America Foundation.” It wants all of these organizations to claim that they’re opposing “corporate evildoers,” and so is not publicly taking a strong corporate stance. Instead, the astroturfers are doing that for it.

  5. Will Price

    The real reason is that the current fervor has been perverted into a Title 2 fight. Nobody wants Title 2 except a few far left freaks. Nobody organized wants to be associated with being responsible for declaring ISPs Title 2. When that blows over, the respectable types like Google can get back into this. Right now it’s just mob rule with no thought behind it.

  6. Peter Saal

    Another possible reason is that Google is concerned about antitrust. It’s gotten large enough that flexing it’s muscles in the bandwidth arena can be seen as evidence of monopolistic behavior. Google has indeed become dominant enough in some arenas that it is picking its fights with more more maturity and self-interest.

  7. If #2 is correct, google is pathetic. Every other ISP lobbies congress, but this would mean that congress is lobbying Google and winning. Google has to learn that their PR team is supposed to push the company’s agenda, and not vice-versa. Just what pictures of Larry Page does Molinari have?