Google and net neutrality

At Google headquarters recently about 100 people showed up to protest Google’s apparently eroding support for ‘net neutrality.’ Net neutrality is the idea that the internet should not restrict the modes of communication that can be used across it, nor the sorts of devices that can be connected to it.

Lots of companies oppose net neutrality because it means they should not discriminate between traffic from different sources. Data traversing the internet – broken up into pieces called packets – includes everything from pirated DVDs being passed around using peer-to-peer filesharing systems to corporate phone calls being routed though voice over internet protocol (VoIP) telephone systems to songs being downloaded for money from the iTunes store. Lots of companies would like to slow down or block file sharing, restrict services like VoIP, and allow people to pay more for faster paid downloads.

One big reason why this is worrisome is that it could prevent the emergence of new technologies. VoIP seems like a good example. Routing telephone calls through the internet challenges the monopoly of fixed-line telephone companies. Low cost VoIP calls have been a source of competition for them, and have probably produced improved services at lower prices for consumers. A future version of the web where companies can slow down or block traffic of undesirable types could be a version where new such technologies get strangled at birth.

That said, abandoning net neutrality could have some advantages, by improving network performance for those who use relatively low-bandwidth services like email and text websites. It could also facilitate the emergence of interesting new technologies, which are not viable on the internet as it exists now. For instance, the sometimes slow and clunky load times were one of the reasons why Google Wave proved to be a failure.

Given their enormous influence on the content and structure of the internet, the position of Google on net neutrality is of considerable public importance. The full details of their deal with Verizon – which is rumoured to allow special treatment of certain sorts of traffic – have not yet been publicly announced. When they are, there will surely be a lot of scrutiny and interest from the geekier components of the general public, as well as those with a particular interest on how technology policies affect societal change.

In Canada, Bell is probably the most vocal opponent of net neutrality, while Michael Geist may be the most prominent defender. I wrote a bit about net neutrality earlier, as well as about the related technology of deep packet inspection.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

7 thoughts on “Google and net neutrality”

  1. For instance, the sometimes slow and clunky load times were one of the reasons why Google Wave proved to be a failure.

    The big reason why Google Wave failed is the stupid way it was rolled out. For a collaborative tool to be useful, people need to be able to invite all their collaborators to use it. By seriously restricting the availability of invitations, Google ensured that the new service would be frustrating and largely useless.

    If they had rolled it out better, it may have succeeded.

  2. “The commission last ruled on this in 2002. It heeded cable-broadband providers, who argued that, since they offered e-mail and web hosting along with their internet access, they were really selling information services, which are more lightly regulated. The Supreme Court agreed, though a dissenting justice observed that a pet store might just as logically package its puppies with leashes and then argue that it sold leashes, not puppies. Now, as the FCC regrets its ruling, Google and Verizon have proposed that Congress allow wireless services to remain free from regulation for now. Google insists that its goal remains that wireless data should be exempt from data discrimination: this is just a temporary compromise proposal. But the effect of it would be to leave wireless services free at least for the moment to discriminate between different sorts of data.

    They also want the law to create a new class of “additional online services”, which may use internet infrastructure, content and applications but are somehow not part of the internet. In providing these services, firms would be free to discriminate. Google and Verizon are arguing that internet access is just a puppy, sure, but it is not the same as the special puppies they might sell in the future.

    Google, however, had supported the FCC’s approach as recently as this summer. It may believe itself strong enough to negotiate with each provider, or it may want a deal for its mobile operating system from wireless-telecoms operators. Whether all this is good for consumers or innovation remains to be seen.”

  3. Why Google Became A Carrier-Humping, Net Neutrality Surrender Monkey (UPDATED)
    By Ryan Singel

    The idea behind the alliance was that Google and the hardware companies could make phones that were open, elegant, powerful and not subject to the legendary whimsies of wireless carriers, who are prone to crippling devices, failing to innovate on new features, charging extra for whatever built-in features they do include, and controlling what can and can’t be done with the devices.

    A few Android smartphones hit the market in 2009, but each device was still exclusive to a single carrier, which meant they were all controlled and hamstrung. (In an early sign of what was to come Monday, Google even removed, at T-Mobile’s insistence, apps from the market that let Android users use their phones as modems for laptops.)

    Then in January, in what looked like a clear sign that Google was taking on the carriers for real, it unveiled the Nexus One — the fabled Google phone. Google promised that users would be able to buy the phone online and have a choice of carriers, who would fight to offer the best deal and service for phone users.

    Suddenly, the possibility existed that wireless carriers in the U.S., like their landline equivalents, would be advertising exclusively about how good calls sound on their network, how wide their coverage is and how economical their plans are.

    Suddenly, it became possible to imagine a wireless world where the devices and the transport of their data were separated into layers, just like the wired world.

  4. Why net neutrality is a distraction

    But that is not the case in America. Its vitriolic net-neutrality debate is a reflection of the lack of competition in broadband access. The best solution would be to require telecoms operators to open their high-speed networks to rivals on a wholesale basis, as is the case almost everywhere in the industrialised world. America’s big network operators have long argued that being forced to share their networks would undermine their incentives to invest in new infrastructure, and thus hamper the roll-out of broadband. But that has not happened in other countries that have mandated such “open access”, and enjoy faster and cheaper broadband than America. Net neutrality is difficult to define and enforce, and efforts to do so merely address the symptom (concern about discrimination) rather than the underlying cause (lack of competition). Rivalry between access providers offers the best protection against the erection of new barriers to the flow of information online.

    This newspaper has always championed free trade, open markets and vigorous competition in the physical world. The same principles should be applied on the internet as well.

  5. House Democrats Shelve Net Neutrality Proposal

    A compromise on net neutrality appears to be as likely as Google and China becoming BFFs. House Democrats have pulled the plug on efforts to work out a compromise among phone, cable, and Internet companies. House Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, who shelved the proposal late on Wednesday in the face of Republican opposition, said, ‘If Congress can’t act, the FCC must,’ and called this development ‘a loss for consumers.’ Internet companies and public interest groups say the new regulations are needed to keep phone and cable companies from playing favorites with traffic, while those companies insist they need flexibility so high-bandwidth applications don’t slow down their systems.

  6. A tangled web
    America’s new internet rules are mostly sensible—but the country’s real web problem is far more basic

    FOR a subject that arouses such strong passions, “network neutrality” is fiendishly difficult to pin down. Ask five geeks and you may well be given six definitions of it. The basic concept sounds simple enough: that the internet’s pipes should show no favours and blindly deliver packets of data from one place to another regardless of their origin, destination or contents. But the devil is in the detail. What happens for instance if some people want to pay for their data to go faster, or if others hog all the bandwidth? And it does not help that both political proponents and opponents of this undefinable thing claim they are fighting to defend free speech and innovation.

    This debate is loudest in America, uncoincidentally the developed market with the least competitive market in internet access. Democrats, who are in favour of net-neutrality rules, insist regulation is needed to prevent network operators discriminating in favour of their own services. A cable-TV firm that sells both broadband internet access and television services over its cables might, for example, try to block internet-based video that competes with its own television packages. Republicans, meanwhile, worry that net neutrality will be used to justify a takeover of the internet by government bureaucrats, stifling innovation. (That the internet’s origins lie in a government-funded project is quietly passed over.)

    From a consumer’s perspective, both sides are half right. Without some neutrality rules it is unclear how a network operator can be stopped from blocking particular sites or services. But overly prescriptive rules that fossilise the internet in its current form could indeed hamper innovation. Firms that come up with faster and fancier services should be able to charge a premium, just as delivery companies and airlines do.

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