At a town hall meeting scheduled for today (Nov. 14), Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama was to touch on the standard set of network neutrality talking points, no doubt missing the irony that he was going to make his remarks at the headquarters of Google, the one company that stands to gain the biggest sort-term windfall if network neutrality becomes law.
Prepared statements were released in advance and they add up to the standard campaign pabulum. After all, everyone's for an "open network" just like everyone's for "quality health care" and a "sound energy policy." Yet aside from being a friendly host to the Obama camp, the more Google talks about their so-called neutrality model for wireless, the less I see them supporting the broad language of Snowe-Dorgan in the end. Simply because it applies to wireless devices, Google's so-called "open" Android operating system is going to need some network management capabilities to work. And its no secret that when pressed about the operation efficiency of a totally neutral Internet, Google has been hedging all year.
Nonetheless, by getting all gushy about Google, Obama risks the same danger as many of his colleagues – equating Google's interest with the public interest.
"The Google story is about what can be achieved when we cultivate new ideas and keep the playing field level for new businesses," his script reads. Of course, Google hardly has a level playing field. First of all, although it designs to compete in the provision of services (local WiFi and 700 MHz wireless) it is completely unregulated. No carrier of last resort obligations, no universal service mandate, and no need to incur the extra cost to collect taxes, surcharges and franchise fees state and local governments assess on its prospective competitors.
Then there's the enormous break from the FCC with the auction rules, which probably did more than anything to spearhead interest in Android. Google's stock price is about $640 and its market cap is $200 billion. By comparison, AT&T's is $237 billion, Verizon's is $126 billion and IBM's is $143 billion.
Google's big advantage in Washington has been its ability to hoodwink Congress that its still a small company–("a smaller voice" being "squeezed out," in Obama's words) hence appealing to the Democrats' instinct to protect small players from large.
The principled position however stems from respect for private property and curtailing the power of big government to regulate business models. In the end, even Google's going to finesse its way out of supporting net neutrality. Posturing for "open networks" suits the company today, but not in the long run. That's why Obama, and others, should be careful. Politicians who buy into the idea that network neutrality as political issue will find themselves out on a limb.