Google and the Network Neutrality Fallacy

The blogosphere has been buzzing today about the Wall Street Journal’s report that Google has been discussing the creation of a “fast lane” for content with telephone and cable companies that provide most high-speed Internet connections to American homes. Google’s telecom and media council, Richard Whitt, answered with a non-denial denial, in which he attempted to explain that the use of Web caching and edge servers do not violate network neutrality. His viewpoint was echoed by a number of net neutrality supporters who insist that Google, a long-time supporter of network neutrality, was not abandoning its position. Whitt articulates the case himself, arguing that edge caching and content distribution networks (CDNs), in which Google (along with many other high-traffic sites) places heavily-accessed content on servers closer to consumers, remains within network neutrality principles, even though it allows content and applications to load quicker and without congestion. In an updated version of their article Journal reporters Visheesh Kumar and Christopher Rhoads wrote:

Google’s proposed arrangement with network providers, internally called OpenEdge, would place Google servers directly within the network of the service providers, according to documents reviewed by the Journal. The setup would accelerate Google’s service for users. Google has asked the providers it has approached not to talk about the idea, according to people familiar with the plans. Asked about OpenEdge, Google said only that other companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft could strike similar deals if they desired. But Google’s move, if successful, would give it an advantage available to very few.

Google’s idea–to place content servers directly in service provider networks, presumably in return for payment– would seem to run afoul of the provision in Snowe-Dorgan net neutrality bill that requires service providers to “enable any content, application, or service made available by the Internet to be offered, provided, or posted on the basis that is reasonable and non-discriminatory, including with respect to quality of service, access speed and bandwidth.” Financial Times business writer John Gapper addresses this problem in his blog:

Google may be right that it has not changed its position. But it does show why the notion of legislating net neutrality is so thorny. When I wrote a column about this in 1996, I did not support legislation, despite my sympathy for the basic principle. Big companies do in practice deliver their services more rapidly than small ones because they have the technology and the resources to provide local caching and other speed-up tricks. As a result, the consumer’s experience is not neutral.

And therein is the logical rub. Network neutrality is an absolute. You can’t have a network that’s “mostly neutral.” Either all content the user accesses is delivered on an equal, non-discriminatory basis, or it’s not. Once you start using techniques that change the speed, reliability or prioritization in the delivery of any content, you no longer have a neutral network. It doesn’t matter where the acceleration or prioritization occursââ?¬â??it’s that it occurs. But only big content companies can afford edge caching and CDNs. At the end of the day, they are using those pejorative “deep pockets” to improve the Internet experience for their own services. I have always argued they have had the right to do this, and that there should be no law preventing service providers from monetizing their own networks to accelerate and prioritize applications for companies willing to pay for a faster grade of service. Those who disagree, such as Ben Scott at Free Press, do so on economic grounds. No one should be able to pay for Web priority. Yet to me, the network neutrality argument completely breaks down when it asserts that using network management techniques in the core is unfair but and through accelerating and prioritizing traffic edge servers and CDNs, is not. To be fair to Scott, he’s a purist and doesn’t make this argument. But writers such as Om Malik do. Although technical, this is a discussion that we need to have, especially when a new President and Congress stand ready to introduce unprecedented level regulation of Internet networks. Finally, the techniques large content providers use, like edge caching and CDNs, will be seen as methods that broke down end-to-end neutrality years ago. Google’s outreach to the phone and cable companies also may indicate that given the rapidly increasing rate of traffic, edge caching may have its limits and network-based mechanisms might have a role in Internet content management. And while Google’s getting the most buzz, don’t forget the Journal noted the shifting of Microsoft, Yahoo and on the issue. The danger is getting caught up in a semantic hair-splitting over what is and is not a net neutrality violation. The significance of the Google news is that it is time to stop and think if network neutrality really exists in today’s Web and whether mandating it as law will be advantageous or desirable.

Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.