The Google Non-Story On Network Neutrality — And Once Again Why Citizen Movements Are Citizen Driven.

Both Dave Isenberg and Tim Karr have already cast a rather skeptical eye over the Wall St. Journal story claiming that Google is in secret negotiations to get “fast lane” treatment for its content in violation of Network Neutrality principles. I’ll therefore limit myself to a few additional points. I’ll not along the way that one of the nice things about having a blog is that I can point to stuff I said a long time ago for the inevitable accusation that I am simply an apologist for the Great Google Overlords.

More below . . . .

The ‘What Is Network Neutrality?’ Argument Redux: The Wall St J reaches its fantastic conclusion by using a definition of “network neutrality” common among NN opponents but rejected by just about all serious NN proponents. This is the “all bits are created equal” fallacy, that no one on the pro-NN side actually maintains, but that NN opponents always accuse us NN-supporters of using. I suppose this is the natural corollary of the claim by carriers and other NN opponents that “there is no definition of network neutrality.” “Since we reject any definition, we get to make up whatever definition of NN we want and try to stick it in NN supporters.”

Of course, an actual, working, regulatory definition goes back to the AT&T/BellSouth merger conditions. But to put it in plain words as a general principle, most of us serious about NN and fighting for it define as NN as not allowing carriers to dictate packet flow based on source or destination. Within this overall definition lies a number of gradations on whether it is a good idea to permit differentiation based on third party payments if done in a neutral manner (most NN advocates say no, but some say yes), or whether to allow “type” discrimination so that latency sensitive services always get priority over non-latency sensitive traffic, or whether to limit traffic prioritization solely to the “edge” users and not allow carriers to offer any priority at all.

As I explained in this post back in March 2006, we actually want producers of content and applications, as well as subscribers, to use edge-driven tools to manage traffic. This includes the sort of caching arrangements Google Telecom Lobbyist Rick Whitt says are at issue here. Whitt’s description of what Google is actually negotiating for (edge caching) is born out by the text of the WSJ article, once one gets past the claims on whether it violates NN or not.

Mind, it was all easier back in the day when the access provider was a separate company from the transport provider and we didn’t have to worry about the company that controls transport coopting the traffic control process for its own advantage. But we live in a messy world, and one of the chief strategies of the anti-regulatory crowd is to try to throw up dust to obscure critical details, shout out slogans and soundbites, make simplistic arguments based on these soundbites, and generally keep things as confusing as possible. Unfortunately, our messy world requires messy solutions, details matter, and we either make the effort to look past sensationalism or we get the policy we deserve (such as we have in our financial markets and economy generally).

Those interested in why I think allowing carriers to exploit their control over traffic can read my previous writings, particularly here, here, and here. I make my arguments for enhanced user control over content prioritization here. None of this relies on the purported “treat all traffic the same” fallacy used by the WSJ to reach its conclusion that Google is changing course.

Who Cares What Google Thinks?

Mind you, it would not terribly upset me if Google tried to cut a deal. As readers may recall, I feared such an outcome when Sprint, Clearwire, Google, Intel and a cable consortium including major NN opponents announced the deal to create New Clearwire. That deal allows “type discrimination,” which allows New Clearwire to offer superior routing/higher quality of service (QoS) for latency-sensitive applications. It also makes the NN commitment contingent on contracts subject to renegotiation among the partners without FCC oversight. Representing the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition, we supported this as a step forward from the “no NN never now way” position common in the wireless world, but still sought to have review of any contract modifications to prevent New Clearwire from pulling a fast one down the road. (The FCC rejected this request in its Order approving the New Clearwire deal. We have sought reconsideration on this point.)

It is another fallacy of the anti-NN crowd that the NN movement hinges on the Great Google Overlords. In this mindset, Google abandoning NN would be a terrible blow to the NN movement, either by eliminating its chief proponent or somehow undermining it as the two-faced corporate strategy of yet another profit-maximizing firm.

To repeat for the umpteenth time, citizen movements are citizen driven! Yes, it is nice to have big companies on our side. Indeed, my advocacy works best when the largest number of stakeholders understands why they need to agree with me. But I and everyone else that plays in the policy game at any serious level understands that profit maximizing firms do what they think lies in their best interest, not what lies in the public interest. It is the object of public policy to ensure that the profit maximizing incentives of firms are directed to promote the public interest (or, at least, prevented from undermining the public interest). But I would no more rely on Google to set public policy than I would rely on a hammer to design a chair.

The myth that network neutrality is nothing more than an industry food fight is assiduously cultivated by network neutrality opponents — starting with the carriers themselves. Those of us working here in the public policy sausage factory know better. Whether or not Google tries to cut deals with carriers is really irrelevant to what policies we push for and whether policy makers should adopt them.

An Odd Time To Change Horses

My final thought on the WSJ Google story is that this is an odd time to change horses. It’s not just that, as Tim Karr observed in his post, the regulatory playing field has shifted pretty heavily in the pro-NN direction. Fact is, they have trended that way for the last two years. Ever since we stopped the carriers from getting telecom reform in 2006, each regulatory battle has trended in favor of NN and away from a “hand off the carriers” approach. An effort by Google to cut its own deals and pull back now simply would not work. Worse, from Google’s perspective, it would squander the political capital it does have just in time to lose big with the carriers.

So I’m not terribly put out by the WSJ story. I expect the usual crowd will tell me I am just shilling for Google or blind to their true, evil nature. Whatever. Profit-maximizing firms will do as they will. We in the public interest community will continue to push for what we think is right.

Stay tuned . . . .

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  1. Alan Thiesen says:

    I was already suspicious of the WSJ article, because I saw in Larry Lessig’s blog that the WSJ’s claim that he changed his position on NN is false.

  2. barry payne says:

    as explained by Harold elsewhere, differences in customer tiering, provider provisioning and whitacre tiering are instrumental in defining net neutrality

    an economic parallel would be users and providers controlling bandwidth capacity of equivalent quality made available at uniform prices and TOS – which would eliminate whitacre tiering

    quality differences like latency should be treated under a broader umbrella of potential peak/off-peak pricing or even lower grades of congested/degraded service made available at lower prices – where the other extreme is download speeds so fast they make streaming redundant

    fast lanes per se don’t inherently violate net neutrality under customer tiering or provider provisioning and indeed represent it – as long as the same content is available in slower lanes (that VOIP would not be is neither a violation, just a customer preference)

    a far more serious problem occurs when fast/slow lane distinctions along with metered pricing are used to manipulate access and delivery of content in ways that price customers and providers out of selected content markets, but still comply with net neutrality on grounds that it’s equally available to all

  3. Susan Crawford argues for the “all bits are equal” position, and she’s not exactly chopped liver.

  4. Jon Baker says:

    So what is net neutrality then? In 2007, MAP released a <a href=”“>statement</a> on the Comcast-Bittorrent <a href=”“>issue</a> describing their throttling of traffic based on <b>content</b> (that is, packets being used for P2P content), over your name.

    Today, though, you define Net Neutrality as explicitly NOT content-based, but <i>as not allowing carriers to dictate packet flow based on source or destination</i>.

    So which is it – elimination of context-based traffic discrimination or of endpoint-based traffic discrimination?

  5. Jon Baker says:

    how annoying, your comment mechanism doesn’t allow HTML tags, at least from IE. But it wouldn’t post at all from FireFox 3.0.5.

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