Is Google Changing Its Position on Net Neutrality?

Is Google, the foremost corporate advocate of net neutrality, doing a big fake? Have they succeeded in making everyone believe they will stand up to the Bell companies, even as the company cuts deals to become the preferred provider on a carrier’s network? It sure sounds like it, listening to some recent public comments from one of the company’s top policy execs.

Consider the statements made by Google Senior Policy Counsel Andrew McLaughlin at the Tech Policy Summit in San Jose on Feb. 27:

“Net neutrality will ultimately be solved by competition in the long-run,” describing fiber, broadband over power lines, and wireless efforts to crack “the existing telco-cable duopoly.”What he said next got many bloggers talking:

“Cutting the FCC out the picture would probably be a smart move. It is much better to think of this as an FTC or unfair competition type of problem.”

That would be the Federal TRADE Commission, the new kid on the net neutrality block. Promoting the authority of the FTC, and constricting the Bell-friendly Federal COMMUNICATIONS Commission, has been a pet project the market-oriented Progress and Freedom Foundation think tank. (Conspiratorialists, take note: Google became a “supporter” of PFF sometime between April 4 and Dec. 26 of 2005.)

More significant is what McLaughlin said next. Peter Pitsch, Intel’s director of communications policy, asked: “I inferred from what you said about [net neutrality] that you would not object to [carriers] making a particular offering, as long as that offering were made available on a non-discriminatory basis?”

“That is my view,” replied McLaughlin. He described a “strong” view of neutrality in which carriers are forbidden from charging companies for quality-of-service (QoS) guarantees “because that breaks the free and open model” of the Internet. “There is a more pragmatic view that it is OK [to charge] as long as it is done in a non-discriminatory way.”

“The first view, the strong view of net neutrality, has some very powerful arguments, but the reason we wouldn’t go for it” is purely pragmatic, McLaughlin said. Bell companies are going down the road of paid QoS, so it would be better to find a non-discrimination rule that worked.

“The danger of paid QoS is that it becomes the normality default, and the best efforts Internet is left to atrophy,” he continued. That would be a disaster for all of us. Competition, through different network alternatives, is going to ameliorate that danger.”

McLaughlin’s statements have caused a fair bit of angst within Google, and also within several of the so-called “Group of Six” companies that coalesced last year to take on the Bells. (The others were Amazon, eBay, InterActive Corp., Microsoft and Yahoo!)

A lobbyist at one of these five companies voiced resignation and disgust. “We have always known that someone would walk” from the coalition – and that it would be a cash-rich companies like Google that did so. The fact that Google walks, in the view of this source,
“proves that we need a law” on net neutrality.

Microsoft deserted the gang as early as last July, when it took its name off an It’s Our Net communiqué urging Senators to reject net neutrality compromises. Microsoft, torn between its desire for telecom liberalization and its fear of Whitacreization, desperately wanted compromise. And now, apparently, so does McLaughlin.

In fairness, the Google/McLaughlin view still seeks some form of net neutrality legislation – but just not leading versions by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Me., or by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, the newly minted chairman of the House Internet and Telecommunications Subcommittee. Both of those bills would require QoS enhancement to be funded by consumers, not businesses.

Here, by contrast, is the Google/PR view: “No one has yet figured out how to offer QoS for content applications in a way that does not discriminate, so in Google’s view, it should not be allowed.” As to McLaughlin’s heresy, Adam Kovacevich, the company’s official public policy spokesman, said, “This is an area when Andrew has a personal view.”

Conspiratorialists have also been pointing to an August 2006 forum (of the Progress and Freedom Foundation) in which David Drummond, Google’s general counsel, took issue with Tod Cohen, director of government affairs for eBay, who wanted net neutrality rules applied to wireless devices. “We are not sure that the wireless world is the same, and this may be where we part company,” said Drummond. A few months later, Google and Verizon Wireless announced their deal allowing “V CAST consumers to access a selection of YouTube videos from their mobile phones exclusively for a limited time.”

When Google’s views on net neutrality flared early last month month on this blog Paul Kapustka said that “if Google were to suddenly change course on network neutrality or Web TV, it would probably pick a more prominent place and person to make the announcement.” How much more prominent must it be than the top public policy official speaking in Silicon Valley?