August 21, 2014

Is Google Selling Out Net Neutrality? (UPDATED)

Google has long championed the ideals of Net Neutrality: the idea that users should have equal access to the internet, and that ISPs (and the government) should not prioritize some traffic over other traffic. But the New York Times is reporting that Google is currently in talks with Verizon to “speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege.”

If true, this would directly contradict what Google has been saying on the topic for years. For example, in January, Google’s Rick Whitt said:

“Any entrepreneur with an idea has always been able to create a website and share their ideas globally – without paying extra tolls to have their content seen by other users. … We support… adding a nondiscrimination principle that bans prioritizing Internet traffic based on the ownership (the who), the source (the what) of the content or application.”

As a practical matter, what this would mean for us as users is that a big site with the money to pay a premium to Verizon would load more quickly in a Droid’s browser than another site that can’t afford to pay extra. Verizon would get to decide, based on who can pay up, which sites work best, and according to this article, they’d do so with Google’s blessing. The Times also notes that the agreement “could eventually lead to higher charges for Internet users.”

Now let’s step back from the cliff for a moment. The New York Times article is sourced to “people close to the negotiations who were not authorized to speak publicly about them,” hardly an unimpeachable source. Google has not commented on the story yet. While someone at Verizon confirmed talks are going on, it could be that Verizon is trying to convince Google, and Google is saying “no effin’ way. Have you seen our Public Policy Blog?”

After all, Google was in talks with China, too, and ended up taking a stand.

But my gut says they will reach some kind of agreement with Verizon. My hope is that it gives some token to Verizon while leaving the ideals of Net Neutrality intact.

We may not have to wait long to find out: the Times’ source says that an agreement could come “as soon as next week.”

Update: Still no official announcement but the Washington Post is reporting that a deal has been struck, where Verizon will respect net neutrality on wired lines but offer priority to the highest bidder on wireless data while Google looks the other way. Given that wireless is the future, I don’t see this as an acceptable compromise.

Update: Google has issued a fairly definitive statement via it’s Public Policy Twitter account: “@NYTimes is wrong. We’ve not had any convos with VZN about paying for carriage of our traffic. We remain committed to an open internet.” Encouraging!

Update: Now Verizon is also saying that the reports are false. But papers like the New York Times and Washington Post don’t typically completely make stuff up. My guess is this isn’t the last we’ll hear of this.