Google has decided that normal competitive rules do not apply to it: The Internet goliath is seeking special deals with Internet access providers to ensure that consumers receive special high-speed access to its Web services. The deals would shut out competing services from Microsoft, Yahoo!, and a host of smaller companies, harming innovation and stomping all over established notions of Net Neutrality. In short, it's an antitrust nightmare in the making.
What's amazing about this development--which was first reported Monday morning in the "Wall Street Journal"--is that Google was, until fairly recently, one of the major proponents of Net Neutrality, a movement that seeks to ensure that US consumers can access all of the services offered on the Internet on equal footing regardless of which network provider they use. Google, which maintains a page dedicated to Net Neutrality (http://tinyurl.com/googleliars), has quietly withdrawn from a coalition of tech giants charged with protecting Net Neutrality.
Unfortunately, Google is not alone: Once among Net Neutrality's biggest supporters, Microsoft and Yahoo! have also quietly walked away from the coalition in recent weeks. ("Network neutrality is a policy avenue the company is no longer pursuing," Microsoft confirms.)
What differentiates Google from its competitors, however, is that it has actually attempted to help offset network provider bandwidth costs so that those Internet gateway companies will offer customers faster access to Google services. To their credit, the phone and cable companies contacted by Google were uninterested in doing a deal over antitrust concerns. "If we did this, Washington would be on fire," one cable company executive told "The Wall Street Journal."
Microsoft and Yahoo! have separately formed various telecommunications partnerships, but neither company has attempted to subvert Net Neutrality in the manner in which Google proposed. To date, each has avoided any antitrust scrutiny.
In its public policy blog, Google has responded to the charges raised by "The Wall Street Journal" report. The company says that it is simply recommending that network providers be allowed to perform "edge caching" techniques to "improve page load times" and "help broadband providers by minimizing the need to send traffic outside of their networks and reducing congestion on the Internet's backbones."
"Google has offered to 'colocate' caching servers within broadband providers' own facilities," the statement reads. "This reduces the provider's bandwidth costs since the same \[content\] wouldn't have to be transmitted multiple times. We've always said that broadband providers can engage in activities like colocation and caching, so long as they do so on a non-discriminatory basis."
Google notes that its collocation agreements with network providers are not exclusive, so these companies could strike similar deals with other companies. But that doesn't obviate the basic criticism of this plan: It completely bypasses Net Neutrality by ensuring that only the biggest and richest Internet services companies can offer speed advantages to consumers. Such a practice will harm competition and innovation because smaller service providers will be artificially unable to match the performance offered by Google services.
"Google remains strongly committed to the principle of net neutrality, and we will continue to work with policymakers in the years ahead to keep the Internet free and open," the statement concludes.
My take on this is simple: Google needs to be strongly committed to the letter of Net Neutrality, not the principle. Its current "edge caching" strategy is one that will cut out smaller players entirely, and create a less useful and expansive Internet, and one that is dominated only by the biggest Internet services providers on earth. If Google is successful, the Internet as we know it will disappear and be replaced by the Google Internet. That must not be allowed to happen.