mazzetta on Tue, 16 Dec 2008 08:40:57 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Google's fast track

from wsj

Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web


The celebrated openness of the Internet -- network providers are not
supposed to give preferential treatment to any traffic -- is quietly
losing powerful defenders.

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry
Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own
content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal
network access for all content providers.

At risk is a principle known as network neutrality: Cable and phone
companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all
traffic the same -- nobody is supposed to jump the line. Video Clips

But phone and cable companies argue that Internet content providers
should share in their network costs, particularly with Internet
traffic growing by more than 50% annually, according to estimates.
Carriers say that to keep up with surging traffic, driven mainly by
the proliferation of online video, they need to boost revenue to
upgrade their networks. Charging companies for fast lanes is one

One major cable operator in talks with Google says it has been
reluctant so far to strike a deal because of concern it might violate
Federal Communications Commission guidelines on network neutrality.

"If we did this, Washington would be on fire," says one executive at
the cable company who is familiar with the talks, referring to the
likely reaction of regulators and lawmakers. More

Separately, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. have withdrawn quietly from
a coalition formed two years ago to protect network neutrality. Each
company has forged partnerships with the phone and cable companies.
In addition, prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised
President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their
views on the subject.

The contentious issue has wide ramifications for the Internet as a
platform for new businesses. If companies like Google succeed in
negotiating preferential treatment, the Internet could become a place
where wealthy companies get faster and easier access to the Web than
less affluent ones, according to advocates of network neutrality. That
could choke off competition, they say.

For computer users, it could mean that Web sites by companies not
able to strike fast-lane deals will respond more slowly than those by
companies able to pay. In the worst-case scenario, the Internet could
become a medium where large companies, such as Comcast Corp. in cable
television, would control both distribution and content -- and much of
what users can access, according to neutrality advocates.

The developments could test Mr. Obama's professed commitment to
network neutrality. "The Internet is perhaps the most open network in
history, and we have to keep it that way," he told Google employees a
year ago at the company's Mountain View, Calif., campus. "I will take
a back seat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality." [Barack

Barack Obama

But Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law professor at Stanford University
and an influential proponent of network neutrality, recently shifted
gears by saying at a conference that content providers should be able
to pay for faster service. Mr. Lessig, who has known President-elect
Barack Obama since their days teaching law at the University of
Chicago, has been mentioned as a candidate to head the Federal
Communications Commission, which regulates the telecommunications

The shifting positions concern some purists. "What they're talking
about is selling you the right to skip ahead in the line," says Ben
Scott, policy director of Free Press, a Washington-based advocacy
group. "It would mean the first part of your business plan would be a
deal with AT&T to get into their super-tier -- that is anathema to a
culture of innovation."

Advocates of network neutrality believe it has helped the Internet
drive the technology revolution of the past two decades, creating
hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The concept of network neutrality originated with the phone business.
The nation's longtime telephone monopoly, nicknamed Ma Bell, and its
regional successors were prohibited from giving any public phone call
preference in how quickly it was connected. When the Internet first
boomed in the 1990s, content largely traveled via telephone line, and
the rule survived by default. 'Dumbpipes'

The carriers picked up the unflattering nickname "dumbpipes,"
underscoring their strict noninterference in the Internet traffic
surging over their networks. The name heightened resentment among the
carriers toward the soaring wealth of the content providers, such
as Inc., that couldn't exist without the networks of the
telecom and cable companies.

In August 2005, amid a deregulatory environment, the FCC weakened
network neutrality to a set of four "guiding principles." The step had
the effect of making the FCC's power to enforce network neutrality
subject to interpretation, emboldening those looking for ways around

Stirring the waters further, major phone companies including AT&T
and Verizon announced they intended to create new fast lanes on the
Internet -- and would charge content companies a toll to use it.
They claimed Internet companies had been getting a free ride. [heavy

That unleashed a firestorm of criticism. A diverse group including
Internet companies Google, Microsoft and Amazon joined the likes
of the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association and the
pop singer Moby in what they characterized as a fight to "save the
Internet." The coalition claimed such steps could endanger freedom of

Advocates of network neutrality also claimed that dismantling the
rule would be the first step toward distributors gaining control over
content, since they could dictate traffic according to fees charged to
content providers. The fortunes of a certain Web site, in other words,
might depend on how much it could pay network providers, rather than
on its popularity.

That concern would grow if the carriers themselves offer content,
which some have tried, with mixed success. AT&T, the country's largest
broadband provider, recently launched its own online video service,
called VideoCrawler, to compete with YouTube and others.

"One way AT&T can win that competition is to give their own video
service preferential treatment on their network," says Robert
Topolski, a networking engineer based in Portland, Ore. An AT&T
spokesman says the company has no plans to give VideoCrawler
preferential treatment on its network.

Mr. Topolski discovered that Comcast was slowing a video file-sharing
service called BitTorrent. That discovery eventually led to sanctions
against Comcast by the FCC. Comcast has appealed the decision, arguing
the FCC did not have the authority to make such a ruling.

In 2006, Microsoft felt strongly enough about the issue that it wrote
Congress to declare that saving network neutrality "could dictate
whether the U.S. will continue to lead the world in Internet-related

The debate eventually reached a stalemate. Legislation to codify
network neutrality failed to pass, and carriers backed off their plans
for a tiered Internet.

During his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama spoke frequently about
the Internet, which was a critical tool in his grass-roots effort to
reach new voters, and the importance of network neutrality. "Once
providers start to give privilege to some Web sites and applications
over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out," he told Google
employees a year ago when he campaigned at the company. "And then we
all lose." Obama Advisers

But some of those who advise the new president on technology have
changed their view on network neutrality. Stanford's Mr. Lessig, for
one, has softened his opposition to variable service tiers. At a
conference, he argued that carriers won't become kingmakers so long as
the faster service at a higher price is available to anyone willing to
pay it.

"There are good reasons to be able to prioritize traffic," Mr. Lessig
said later in an interview. "If everyone had to pay the same rates for
postal service, than you wouldn't be able to differentiate between
sending a greeting card to your grandma versus sending an overnight
letter to your lawyer."

Some telecom experts say that broadband is the most profitable service
offered by phone and cable companies, and they are simply trying to
offset declining revenue from their traditional phone business.

In the two years since Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other Internet
companies lined up in favor of network neutrality, the landscape has
changed. The Internet companies have formed partnerships with phone
and cable companies, making them more dependent on one another.

Microsoft, which appealed to Congress to save network neutrality
just two years ago, has changed its position completely. "Network
neutrality is a policy avenue the company is no longer pursuing,"
Microsoft said in a statement. The Redmond, Wash., software giant now
favors legislation to allow network operators to offer different tiers
of service to content companies.

Microsoft has a deal to provide software for AT&T's Internet
television service. A Microsoft spokesman declined to comment
whether this arrangement affected the company's position on network

Amazon's popular digital-reading device, called the Kindle, offers a
dedicated, faster download service, an arrangement Amazon has with
Sprint. That has prompted questions in the blogosphere about whether
the service violates network neutrality.

"Amazon continues to support adoption of net neutrality rules to
protect the longstanding, fundamental openness of the Internet,"
Amazon said in a statement. It declined to elaborate on its Kindle

Amazon had withdrawn from the coalition of companies supporting net
neutrality, but it recently was listed once again on the group's Web
site. It declined to comment on whether carriers should be allowed to
prioritize traffic.

Yahoo now has a digital subscriber-line partnership with AT&T. Some
have speculated that the deal has caused Yahoo to go silent on the
network-neutrality issue.

An AT&T spokesman said the company should be able to strike any deal
it sees fit with content companies. Yahoo said in a statement that
carriers and content companies "should find a consensus on how best to
ensure that Americans have access to a world-class Internet." Google

Google, with its dominant market position and its perceived ties to
the Obama team, may hold the most sway. One of President-elect Obama's
most visible supporters during the campaign was Eric Schmidt, Google's
chief executive officer. Mr. Schmidt remains an adviser during the
transition. [Eric Schmidt]

Eric Schmidt

Google's proposed arrangement with network providers, internally
called OpenEdge, would place Google servers directly within the
network of the service providers, according to documents reviewed by
the Journal. The setup would accelerate Google's service for users.
Google has asked the providers it has approached not to talk about the
idea, according to people familiar with the plans.

Asked about OpenEdge, Google said only that other companies such as
Yahoo and Microsoft could strike similar deals if they desired. But
Google's move, if successful, would give it an advantage available to
very few.

The matter could come to a head quickly. In approving AT&T's 2006
acquisition of Bell South, the FCC made AT&T agree to shelve plans
for a fast lane for 30 months. That moratorium expires in the
middle of next year. A Democratic lawmaker has already promised new
network-neutrality legislation early in 2009. And a new chairman of
the FCC could take a stricter position on forcing companies to comply
with network neutrality.

Richard Whitt, Google's head of public affairs, denies the company's
proposal would violate network neutrality. Nevertheless, he says
he's unsure how committed President-elect Obama will remain to the

"If you look at his plans," says Mr. Whitt, "they are much less
specific than they were before."

Write to Vishesh Kumar at and Christopher Rhoads

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