Consumer Group Dissects Google’s Stance on Net Neutrality

Senior Editor

Google has professed its support for the concept of “net neutrality”—but not everyone believes the corporation’s support is unqualified enough.

Some backers of neutrality—basically, the idea of treating all Internet traffic in the same free and open way—are accusing the technology giant of softpedaling on the issue for business and political reasons.

A consumer group, SumOfUs.org, has launched a snarky advertising campaign, complete with a petition and website, urging the company to “fully back” net neutrality, and targeting the company’s employees as a strategy for shaping corporate opinion.

The campaign’s title: “WTF Google?!?”

The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates Web-based commerce, is weighing new rules on net neutrality, in the wake of a federal court ruling widely perceived as striking a blow against that free-and-open information flow.

A number of school and library organizations have urged the FCC to take a strong stance in guaranteeing an unrestricted and equitable flow of content over the Internet.  Otherwise, they say, Internet service providers could dictate whether content is delivered via “fast” or “slow” lanes, with richer organizations paying for the right to deliver content more quickly. Schools and libraries, which rely heavily on free online materials for content and curriculum, would in theory lose out, if the tide of online content slowed or was somehow diverted.

Some organizations, like Netflix, which count on being able to stream video and other heavy-bandwidth content via the Web, have urged the FCC to take a strong stand in safeguarding neutrality. Some Internet services providers say delivering that kind of content costs them money, and that they should be able to recoup some of their costs.

For the record, Google has publicly stated its support for net neutrality, issuing a statement in September that broke what many saw as an unusual degree of silence on the issue:

“We believe that consumers should continue to enjoy open on-ramps to the Internet,” the company stated. “That means no Internet access provider should block or degrade Internet traffic, nor should they sell ‘fast lanes’ that prioritize particular Internet services over others. These rules should apply regardless of whether you’re accessing the Internet using a cable connection, a wireless service, or any other technology.”

But the WTF Google?!? campaign is demanding that the company go farther. It says Google should urge the FCC to assert its authority under a provision in federal law, known as Title II, to take a tougher line in regulating broadband providers.

The organization says its reaching out to rank-and-file Google employees, because it suspects Google’s Washington lobbyists, including former Republican Congresswoman Susan Molinari, may be not as keen on having the company take a hard line on Title II. (Google officials have not responded to an EdWeek request for comment.)

The FCC could be moving toward a decision on neutrality issues. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the agency is considering a plan that would expand the agency’s authority over broadband providers—but also allow them to arrange deals with content companies to receive special access to customers. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said the agency is committed to protecting net neutrality, and ensuring a free flow of content to consumers, including schools.

“The Internet is open. Period,” Wheeler told EdWeek in an interview earlier this year. “We are not about to let anyone…disadvantage schools by playing around with the ability of schools to get open access to everything that’s on the Internet.”

A number of observers in recent months have questioned why Google, despite its recent public statement, hasn’t been a bigger player publicly on net neutrality issues.

A recent post on Gigaom, a media company focused on technology, said Google appeared to be “twiddling its thumbs” on the issue. The post dissected a number of possible motives for Google’s alleged passivity. For instance, there’s Google’s nascent work as broadband provider in some markets, and the idea that net neutrality could restrict its business ambitions. Also worth noting: Google went through a tough fight a few years ago, when it defended net neutrality, only to be branded a “sell out” for working to accomodate the needs of wireless carriers, the post says.

There’s also what the article calls the “realpolitik” theory—which is that Google is a big enough company that it doesn’t make sense to stake out a position on neutrality when it could simply “cut a ‘fast lane’ check to whoever is demanding one” for delivery of content.

Speculation on motivations aside, we’ll know more about which industry and consumer arguments have won out, when the FCC issues final rules, at a time of its choosing.

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