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Google 'sold out the net neutrality hippies' in 2008

Company acts in own interest shocker

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Broadsight analyst Alan Patrick isn't the type to pat himself on the back, but he can be forgiven for doing so today. Google threw the Net Neutrality campaign under a bus this week, publishing a set of policy principles it's thrashed out with Verizon. But two years ago Patrick predicted such a detente was inevitable, forecasting that Google would abandon the "hippy" hangers-on who backed the campaign.

At first, Google supported the campaign for new regulation for the reason Ted Dziuba so nicely explained here in his piece Google disguises capitalism as civil rights. Google's view was, Ted paraphrased:

Network neutrality is necessary to keep the service providers from charging us up the ass. We want to run our business how we please, but you should force the internet service providers to run their business how we please. It's just really convenient for us that way. Please, government, step in and save us.

At the basic level, Google now acknowledges that it needs a distributor's pipes and masts, and a distributor needs Google's content and services. Google UK's DJ Collins emphasised that again on Radio 4 News yesterday.

It was from this basic mutual relationship, Patrick correctly predicted back in December 2008, that Google's policy would change as it built out its own private network.

Google had deeper pockets, and in YouTube was distributing more valuable "stuff". It was therefore in a position to leverage these strengths. At the time, he points out, investment in "Freemium" services was drying up and real returns on capital were being demanded. Google saw that it would get more business from tiered services and pricing models than it would by supporting the hippies' campaign to outlaw them.

"Google appears to be realizing that net non-neutrality would actually be a boon to business--because it can afford to pay preferential fees that other companies can't. Microsoft, Yahoo, and others appear to be realizing the same thing," he wrote.

And as it began to install edge caching servers at ISPs, it also saw that neutrality legislation would come round and bite it, too.

"Google … played Net Neutrality until it could effectively peer at Tier 1 level, and it will now do that until it has built its own backbone network."

As I wrote here, Google may now be the largest private network in the world - we'll see when this year's Atlas survey is published. It was nowhere in 2007, and No.3 last year.

In other words, this story only had one ending. Today Patrick writes:

"So all the gnashing of teeth and wailing, calling Google a 'Surrender Monkey' is to me a sign of Tech bloggers being either largely incompetent or asleep at their terminals for the last 2 years."

Give me free stuff

All that remained was to chuck the Hippies overboard. But some jumped before they were pushed.

The deftest bit of footwork of all was shown by Ben Scott, policy director of the lobby group Free Press. For the past few years Scott had been the voice of net neutrality. In April, he pushed off to join the Obama administration as a policy advisor at the State Department. It was great timing. Net neutrality had been a useful career ladder. He could see the ladder was about to be kicked away.

Patrick also has a good observation on how the neutrality campaign shifted into self-destruct mode:

"The initial idea was to assume that you got Freedom of Access no matter who you were. This was later conflated by some more Web 2.0 hippie types into Freedom of Assets."

Indeed, and this was never illustrated better than by our ever sane and rational friend Cory Doctorow, here:

I say, it's our dirt, so we make the rules. If they don't like those rules, let them get their goddamned wires out of our dirt, off our streets, out of our basements. Let's give them 60 days, and if they haven't pulled up their wires by then, we'll buy them for the scrappage price of the copper.
Net neutrality: Save Google. Save this lot.

Net Neutrality campaigners in 2006. What will they do now?

I'd disagree that the neutrality campaign morphed from one goal to another. It's more accurate to say that it was always a blank canvas upon which people projected their worst fears. It started out vague, became vaguer, and gradually became all things to all men. If you look at the history of ideas, however, it clearly belongs to the utopian school of thinking - that digital networks are a pure, unsullied pasture of goodness and freeness. Anyone who makes money from selling access to bits, or places a value on those bits (as copyright businesses tend to do) is engaging in something decidedly grubby - they're pooing in the meadow.

This is a childish intellectual prejudice, and it's dying out in the copyright debates just as it's dying out in debates about network policy. It's just a shame that in copyright, we haven't yet got the free flowing content market that really unleashes the technologies of sharing.

But we'll get there, eventually. ®

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