Is Google Naive, Crafty or Stupid?

Legions of netizens have come to romanticize Google, to believe in it as a reliable force for good, not just a profit-making corporate structure. Whether out of naivete or craftiness, that little dream has now been dispelled.
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After much fulmination in newspapers and in the blogosphere, on Monday Google and Verizon announced a proposed "legislative framework" to "preserve the open internet." The announcement was greeted with enormous interest because it had been alleged that Google was preparing to make a deal that would compromise its longstanding commitment to net neutrality, the principle that no content traveling along the internet should be treated differently because of its source. Early reports of the negotiations, including some in the New York Times, were clearly mistaken. This was no mere deal by Google to buy preferred access for its own services on Verizon's networks, an individual violation of the principle of network neutrality by one of its most ardent prior proponents. It was a proposal that would legislatively gut that principle in general for everyone. The newspaper accounts thought too small.

Google presented the deal as a way to "save the open internet." But in fact, it abandons it in three ways. First, goodbye to network neutrality on wireless networks -- the place everyone, including Google -- believes to be the future of the internet. Second, goodbye to network neutrality for "additional" or "differentiated" services. If you can't drive a coach and four through that loophole, you were not paying attention in English class. Third, and missed by most of the commentators, goodbye to the FCC's role as a regulator of network neutrality. The Google-Verizon proposal settles the FCC's disputed power to regulate the net by removing all but a vestige of it -- leaving an entity that can adjudicate on a case-by-case basis, but cannot make rules. This is a telephone company's vision of network neutrality - not over our wireless networks, not when we want to sell something else on top, and not subject to effective regulation, just enough to act as a barrier to entry for potential competitors. In other words, not network neutrality.

The question is, why would Google do this?

Is it a matter of corporate naivete? Verizon is, at base, a telephone company; it thrives in the interstices of state regulation the way small marine organisms thrive inside the nooks and crannies of a coral reef. That is its preferred habitat. Its organizational culture evolved there and it is brilliantly adapted to it. Google is a company built by engineers. The initial reaction of engineers to regulation -- and I speak as someone who has had to explain legal rules to computer scientists many times -- is simply to reject large amounts of them as "stupid" and thus obviously not real. Their second reaction, when the "that's just stupid" defense fails to cause legal reality to conform itself to their beliefs, is to use technology to design around the rules. (Google something in a foreign country and you will realize this immediately. Geolocation allows tailoring of content based not just on national interest but national rules.) Their third is to make a deal, in the hopeful -- and utterly laudable - belief that there is a possible agreement hidden in the details, a technologically mediated compromise that can make everyone better off. Those two different organizational cultures were on display in Monday's announcement. Unfortunately, the announcement was about... regulatory schemes (and how to gut them). That is playing to Verizon's strengths, not Google's. And it showed.

Is it not naivete but realpolitik? Google has been a passionate advocate of openness -- not coincidentally, because its business model is built around it, but also because it has hired some of the leading visionaries with that point of view. Google has defended open networks -- where new entrants will have the power to disrupt existing businesses just as Google did to Yahoo and Alta Vista's search services. And it has defended open platforms - such as the Android phone -- not proprietary closed systems like the iPhone ecology. One way to read Monday's announcement, perhaps the saddest for those who believed that Google had a real principled commitment to openness, is that Google has decided to ditch the first principle and concentrate on the second. It is now rich enough that it can buy preferred treatment over wireless networks and premium services. And it needs the phone companies to have Android succeed and carry Google onto the mobile web. Net neutrality got Google where it is, but now it is time to pull up the ladder behind it.

Finally, does Google genuinely believe this "compromise" is the best that can be achieved? That this is the best place to start negotiations over the future of the open net? That strains credibility. Google may or may not be evil, but it is filled with some of the smartest people I have ever met. The howls of disappointment from the blogosphere reflect the jilted hopes of legions of netizens who -- against their better judgment -- had come to romanticize Google, to believe in it as a reliable force for good, not just a profit-making corporate structure. Whether out of naivete or craftiness, that little dream has now been dispelled.

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