Has Google Flipped on 'Network Neutrality'?

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Google wants to pay MSOs and telcos to place its Web servers in their data centers to provide users better service, the Wall Street Journal reports today.

Does that contradict the search kingpin’s previous position on "network neutrality," as the Journal indicates? 

It might appear that way. But this interpretation misreads Google’s nuanced position on the issue: It believes broadband service providers should not be allowed to force (or, if you prefer, extort) Web content providers to pay extra to guarantee high-speed connections — rather, it wants the option to strike deals that let its content be delivered as fast as possible.

You might put it this way: Google wants to be able to upgrade to first class if it wants to, but not have airlines charge it a premium just because it happens to take lots of trips.

Some background: Here’s Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist, testifying before a U.S. Senate committee hearing on the issue in February 2006: "Allowing segmentation of the broadband networks into capacious ‘broadest-band’ toll lanes for some, and narrow dirt access roads for the rest, is contrary to the design and spirit behind the Internet, as well as our national competitive interests." 

Now, under Google’s proposed "OpenEdge" plan with broadband providers, the WSJ reports, Google would pay a premium to get a fast on-ramp to users. 

Isn’t that the very idea Cerf attacked as contravening fundamental Internet community principles?

No, says Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington telecom and media counsel — the company still believes in the principles of network neutrality, he wrote in a blog post today, calling the Journal story "confused" and "hyperbolic."



Whitt claims OpenEdge is akin to other Web-caching services like those offered by Akamai. What’s key, he said, is that Google traffic would not be treated with higher priority than other traffic. (It would just be closer to the finish line than that of competitors that hadn’t struck similar deals.)

"By bringing YouTube videos and other content physically closer to end users, site operators can improve page load times for videos and Web pages," Whitt wrote. "In addition, these solutions help broadband providers by minimizing the need to send traffic outside of their networks and reducing congestion on the Internet’s backbones."

Some may argue that it’s fundamentally unfair that deep-pocketed companies like Google should be able to pay extra to get "closer to the finish line." But as long as the first-class tickets are available for sale to the general public, Google says, there’s no network-neutrality issue.

Well, sure — just like we’re all free to dine at the Ritz.

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