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Google hints at the End of Net Neutrality

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Rick Whitt, Google's chief lobbyist and spin doctor, was pressed into service Sunday night to deflect the Journal’s claim that the search monopoly has abandoned its commitment to the Neutrality cause, which he did by issuing a rebuttal-by-blog:

"All of Google's colocation agreements with ISPs ... are non-exclusive. ... Also, none of them require (or encourage) that Google traffic be treated with higher priority than other traffic. In contrast, if broadband providers were to leverage their unilateral control over consumers' connections and offer colocation or caching services in an anti-competitive fashion, that would threaten the open Internet and the innovation it enables."

Whitt makes some great points, and as a bonus, some of them are even true. But he’s trying to change the subject. Google is making exactly the kind of deal with ISPs that it has consistently tried to ban in law and regulation. One of the blog posts that Whitt cites in defense of Google’s alleged consistency makes this very clear. The post, titled What Do We Mean By 'Net Neutrality'?, advocates a ban on the following ISP practices:

  • Levying surcharges on content providers that are not their retail customers;
  • Prioritizing data packet delivery based on the ownership or affiliation (the who) of the content, or the source or destination (the what) of the content; or
  • Building a new "fast lane" online that consigns Internet content and applications to a relatively slow, bandwidth-starved portion of the broadband connection

Google’s co-location agreement violates all three principles if any money changes hands - and the latter two in any circumstance. Placing content close to the consumer raises its delivery priority relative to content housed on the public Internet. This is the case simply because each hop that the content has to make from one router to the next is an opportunity for congestion and loss, the result of which is a slowdown in the rate at which TCP will transmit. While the Google system reduces the load on the public Internet, it pushes Google’s traffic to the head of the delivery queue at the last minute, as a consequence of its relative immunity to loss.

If the caching system didn’t have an advantage over public Internet delivery, there would be no reason to deploy it.

In e-mail, Whitt insists that caching agreements are permitted under even the most extreme versions of net neutrality: "In my view, access to central offices (or cable headends) is not an NN issue, but should be a Title II functionality (regardless of what the FCC now says) governed by traditional common carriage principles, as well as any TA of '96 CLEC-style requirements." This represents a change of heart on the fundamental issue in the NN debate: advocates of ISP regulation have demanded a wall of separation between infrastructure and content, lest ISPs leverage their monopoly position to push other sources of content aside.

Google has always blurred this line by serving up content from an enormously expensive infrastructure of its own. By stepping across the line they themselves have asked for, while refusing to back down from their legislative demands, Google is now demanding "neutrality for thee, but not for me." Unlike Google, regulators are bound by a requirement to be consistent, so they should take a hard look at this arrangement. Bundling content with expedited delivery is a good thing for many web businesses, not just the biggest one. ®

Richard Bennett is a network inventor who helped design the modern, manageable local area network. He blogs at bennett.com.

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