Google Fires Back on Net Neutrality

Tuesday Dec 16th 2008 by Kenneth Corbin
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Search giant takes issue with news story claiming it has changed its tune on open network debate.

Google has fired back against a report in the Wall Street Journal that described the search giant as backing away from its longstanding commitment to the principle of Net neutrality.

In a blog post, Google telecom counsel Richard Whitt said the Journal article was "confused," and reiterated his company's conviction that Internet service providers should not give preferential treatment to certain types of Web traffic.

"Despite the hyperbolic tone and confused claims in Monday's Journal story, I want to be perfectly clear about one thing: 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," Whitt said.

The article asserted that Google has been quietly abandoning its support for Net neutrality and negotiating side deals with cable and telecom providers to ensure expedited delivery of its Web content. The resulting flare-up on the blogosphere recalled the flavor of the Net neutrality debate in 2006, when telecom providers sought to introduce a tiered service model where companies could pay extra for speedier delivery of their content.

That is the kind of scenario that Net neutrality advocates have long warned against. Companies striking side deals with broadband providers to ensure that their traffic gets to ride in the fast lane would enable ISPs to determine which applications are going to thrive and which are going to be crippled by slow response times, they claim. The result would be a decidedly non-neutral Internet where ISPs could pick winners and losers, choking off innovation in the process.

But that's not what Google says it's doing. Whitt explained that Google is simply talking with ISPs about a technique called edge caching that is commonly practiced by other Web companies, including Net neutrality proponent Amazon.

Edge caching stores frequently accessed data on servers located close to end users, speeding load times for those pages by shortening the distance that the data has to travel.

Whitt said that the Journal story was based on Google having "offered to 'co-locate' caching servers within broadband providers' facilities" to speed data transmissions, and that such an arrangement was consistent with Google's earlier position on Net neutrality.

Whitt added that all of Google's colocation deals with ISPs are nonexclusive, and that "none of them require (or encourage) that Google traffic be treated with higher priority than other traffic."

A Google spokesman said that the arrangements could entail Google paying the ISPs to place its servers in their facilities, but more commonly no fees are involved.

The Journal story raised the broader question of the future of the Net neutrality debate. Efforts to write the principle into law have failed in the past two sessions of Congress, and the article suggested that major advocates such as Google, Lawrence Lessig, the prominent Stanford law professor who recently took a position with Harvard University, and even President-elect Obama have moderated their positions.

Net-neutrality supporters quickly came to Google's defense.

"The effort to achieve an open and non-discriminatory Internet is alive and well in Washington, despite the unfortunate reporting of this morning's Wall Street Journal," said Gigi Sohn, president of the Washington-based digital-rights group Public Knowledge. "We in the public interest community are pleased to be working closely with our friends in industry, and those friends include Google."

Sohn said that the caching described in the story is neither new nor contrary to the principle of Net neutrality.

Several bloggers suggested that the story, which cited "documents reviewed by the Journal," was planted by a cable company looking to create the appearance that the Net neutrality movement was beginning to fragment.

A bipartisan duo in the Senate has already signaled its plans to reintroduce Net neutrality legislation in the coming Congress, and Obama vowed on the campaign trail that he would "take a backseat to no one" on Net neutrality.

Net neutrality was the first item of Obama's tech-policy agenda, which drew wide praise from organizations like Public Knowledge and the media-reform group Free Press. But the Journal article quoted Google's Whitt saying that Obama's plans on Net neutrality have changed, that "they are much less specific than they were before."

In his blog post, Whitt shot back: "For what it's worth, I don't recall making such a comment, and it seems especially odd given that President-elect Obama's supportive stance on network neutrality hasn't changed at all."

Adapted from Internetnews.com.

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