Google’s MCI Vet to fix ‘Neutrality’ Message

Fear not, network neutrality fans: Google is still on your side, and is working hard to make sure its sometimes mixed messages on the topic are more harmonious in the future.

That was the word from Rick Whitt Tuesday, as Google’s new “Washington Telecom and Media Counsel” made his net-neutrality big-stage debut, as part of a panel at the Spring 2007 VON show in San Jose. Before mixing it up with telco opponents at one of the historically premier events for NN debate, Whitt wanted to clear up any doubts raised by some recent public comments from other employees of the search colossus.

“There is no change in Google’s [net neutrality] stance at all,” said Whitt, who didn’t try to deny the quote from Senior Policy Counsel Andrew McLaughlin — “Net neutrality will ultimately be solved by competition in the long-run” — but rather to qualify it:

“Andrew has given that pitch a lot,” said Whitt, who agreed that in the long run — “about 20 years” — competition might make net neutrality moot. “But it [broadband competition] is not there anytime soon, and that’s why now a strong network neutrality [law] has to be the solution.”

Despite heroic attempts by moderator Blair Levin to produce new twists, the “debate” featuring Whitt and Skype’s Christopher Libertelli vs. a telco tag-team of Verizon’s Link Hoewing and Mike McCurry (a former Clinton press secretary now lobbying for the Bell-backed Hands off the Internet operation) didn’t throw off much heat.

(Audience member Jonathan Canis — an attorney representing rural telcos in Iowa — did his part to create a stir by asking if big telco legal actions against free-calling operations weren’t an early example of discrimination that needed net neutrality protection. Answer: More debate soon to come!)

Maybe the calmness around net neutrality these days isn’t so surprising, since the political instability in Washington’s power structure coupled with bigger issues (like the war in Iraq) means that big telecom reform packages are far from the political front burners.

The becalmed situation might be good news for Whitt, a 12-year veteran of MCI’s regulatory team who joined Google full-time just seven weeks ago, since it will give him some time to help hone Google’s polticial messaging. On stage Tuesday, Whitt (like Libertelli) more than held his own against the polished duo on the other side, showing experience that has been sorely lacking from Google’s public policy efforts — a deficit that Whitt knows needs help against the messaging-expert telcos.

“We’re not on top of it as we should be,” said Whitt in a brief exchange after the formal debate. And even though opponents weren’t screaming at each other Tuesday (as has happened at past VONs), Whitt said the polarity of the net neutrality argument still means that public messages need to be finely synchronized, lest they end up as fodder for your foes.

“It’s hard to have a meaningful debate,” Whitt said, when anything you say that might seem slightly off-message gets taken by the other side and “becomes an ad in the Wall Street Journal.” But with Whitt’s experience, at least Google has someone on the bench who knows the importance of speaking with one tongue. Now, let’s see if the admittedly arrogant folks there listen.