Is Google neutral or not? Does it matter?

The Wall Street Journal touched off a debate Monday in an article suggesting that Internet giant Google has changed its position on "net neutrality" and is quietly wheeling and dealing with broad band providers to create a fast lane for its own content on the Internet.

Net neutrality — an essential element of what makes the Internet the Internet in my book — is based on the concept that network providers are not supposed to give preferential treatment to any traffic. If you’re Verizon or AT&T or Comcast you can’t go to one content provider and say I’ll give your data special treatment if you pay me a premium. What you especially cannot do is favor your own data on the network.

Net neutrality proponents say that once data is on the network it must be treated equally.  If you’re a big content provider and and have lots of requests coming to your site, you might need lots of bandwidth to get your data to the Internet quickly. It’s OK to be charged more for extra bandwidth if you want it for speed, but the rates need to be the same for all comers. Similarly at the user’s end, you can opt for slow-speed dial-up, much faster DSL or even faster fiber optic connections.  You pay accordingly to your choice, but all subscribers are treated equally. And once on the network a bit is a bit is bit and is treated equally.

Google apparently is talking to some broadband companies about "edge caching." They want to put their servers in the broadband providers’ facilities, closer to users so that they don’t need to go all they way back to Google’s main servers for frequently sought data.

This would relieve traffic on the Internet and speed the users experience.  Google says this doesn’t violate "net neutrality" as long as the deals aren’t exclusive and all comers are treated the same.

They’re still big advocates of net neutrality, don’t do evil, and are the best company ever, etc, etc. Well, I exaggerate. Google says edge caching was always part of their concept of net neutrality and nothing has changed.

Judging by the reaction in the computer world blogosphere, from for example Larry Lessig, Save the Internet, Public Knowledge, David Isenberg, and Wired, what Google says appears accurate.

Now, I admit I’m not a techie, but much of the response misses the point: Google is the 900 pound Gorilla on the Internet — maybe even bigger. How many other companies are going to be able to afford to put edge cache servers in broadband facilities around the globe? Net neutrality demands that all comers be treated equally, but if there are only one or two gargantuan firms that cut deals with each other because they are the only ones who can afford to play the game where does that leave us?

"Do no evil," is a great motto, but when you dominate the Internet the way Google does, somebody needs to keep their feet to the fire to ensure that Goggle does what its founders pledged.

Published by John M. Simpson

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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