Net neutrality is turning from a boring, irrelevant issue that few people thought about much into one of the key issues for today's Internet. Sadly, that's because a few powerful industry groups in the US have started spending lots of money to bolster their weakening positions in a shifting world, and that means obscure technicalities like Net neutrality become collateral damage in the collective stampede to get to the feeding troughs.
So far, so conventional. But there is a joker in the pack in this game: Google. It's striking that the bigger the company gets, the more it moves away from its natural geek roots, and its reflexive defence of everything that is important to hackers. And so where once you would have expected it naturally and proudly to line up with the rest of the Internet's little people in defending Net neutrality to the hilt, you find it executing subtle crab-like movements that suggests a more troubling, Machiavellian approach. Here's precisely what I'm talking about:
Google CEO Eric Schmidt declined to confirm a deal has been reached on Net neutrality between Google and Verizon but said his company is trying to bring together various factions.
"We're trying to find solutions that bridge between sort of the 'hard-core Net neutrality or else' view and the historic telecom view of no such agreement," Schmidt told reporters on the sidelines of the Techonomy conference following his appearance on a panel here.
The problem here is that there is no bridge: you either have a neutral Net, or you don't. Schmidt's comments seem to signal that Google has given up trying to defend the Internet in its original form. Here are some more hints of how exactly it aims to "bridge" those unbridgeable positions:
"People get confused about Net neutrality," Schmidt said. "I want to make sure that everybody understands what we mean about it. What we mean is that if you have one data type, like video, you don't discriminate against one person's video in favor of another. It's OK to discriminate across different types...There is general agreement with Verizon and Google on this issue."
People aren't confused about Net neutrality, actually, Eric: it means that you transmit bits without paying any attention to their details – not according to who sent them, who will receive them or, despite what you would have us believe, what kind of traffic they represent.
Indeed, this last factor is a crucial element of Net neutrality – not some minor, optional element that can be discarded. Consider a hypothetical situation when the Web was invented. Suppose we had the kind of pseudo-Net neutrality Schmidt seems to be advocating. According to this, it would have been perfectly permissible to allow the then-leading services like Gopher or WAIS traffic (anyone remember them?), say, to be delivered more quickly than Web traffic. So existing Gopher and WAIS incumbents (such as they were) could have conspired to throttle the Web. That is, if Schmidt's proposed "bridge"had been around then, there probably wouldn't be the Web as we know it – and certainly no companies based on searching it...
The situation is exactly the same today, with the difference that we don't know what new services will be developed and run across the Internet. But we do know that we need an absolutely level playing field if they are to stand a chance of challenging current leaders and maybe replace them. Sadly, if Google's "compromise" goes through, we may see the situation where large companies with vested interests can discriminate against new entrants, with the result that online innovation is crimped.
Google's idea is not a "bridge" between the two worlds of the Internet and telecoms – the battle between Netheads and Bellheads was fought and decided long ago; this is something else – a sell-out, pure and simple. It would be a sad and disgraceful moment in Google's rise as a key player in the Internet world if it acquiesced in this disgraceful backroom dealing. Perhaps if enough of us complain loudly enough now, Google's employees will assert themselves and force the company's management to come to its senses and remain true to its roots.