Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal story on Google’s supposed softening on network neutrality has caused a furor. Lawrence Lessig, in particular, seems to have a fair complaint, that the WSJ portrayed his consistent position as some sort of a shift. Google’s protest, on the other hand, is much less convincing. Google has been deliberately muddying the waters on this issue, and is now reaping the consequences.
I explained what network neutrality is about in this post last April. The actual technical question is, what policy should routers (particularly ISPs) use when choosing which packets to drop? An absolutely neutral policy would prevent routers from preferring more important packets, even among packets from the same stream for the same user. Just about no one who actually understands the issue thinks this would be a good thing. Given that some discrimination is desired, the question is, what grounds for discrimination should be allowed? (And let’s please limit ourselves to ones that are technically feasible.)
Instead, companies like Google have been framing the issue differently. They say that the issue is about whether ISPs can discriminate against content providers by delivering their packets slowly or not at all. I know of no case in which this has actually happened. If it did, its customers would be outraged, because they are paying for Internet service they are not getting.
ASIDE: The Comcast-BitTorrent incident is no exception. BitTorrent is not a content provider, it’s a peer-to-peer protocol, and what Comcast was doing (slowing BitTorrent traffic) was to improve its customers’ experience, not shake anyone down. As it happens, its customers still weren’t happy, and it discontinued the practice. A better idea would have been for Comcast to throttle its bandwidth hogs directly. Why they didn’t do that is anyone’s guess.
Google has invited this problem by promoting the idea that ISPs should treat every content provider identically (never mind that this isn’t what network neutrality is about), and now asking for special treatment for Google. Make no mistake, what Google wants to do now (better caching) is reasonable. But it is at odds with their rhetoric of the past. Their current protestations amount to “we never really meant it.” Its all to the good that they didn’t mean it, but they shouldn’t have said it either.
POSTSCRIPT: By the way, ISPs are private business relationships between telcos and their customers. If I and my ISP agree that it would be best to prioritize some of my packets over others, no one has any business stopping us. If my ISP starts doing so against my wishes, I can find another ISP. The only problem arises when (like Comcast with BitTorrent) they do it and don’t tell me.