Is Google voting against net neutrality after voting for it?

Is Google adjusting its stance on network neutrality? Something’s up. Speaking at the Tech Policy Summit this week in San Jose, Calif., Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s head of global public policy walked a narrow line between favoring regulation and free-market competition in a call to move policymaking on the issue to the Federal Trade Commission, according to Tech Daily (no link):

“Cutting the FCC out of the picture would be a smart move,” Andrew McLaughlin said. Net neutrality, the concept of requiring cable- and telephone-based high-speed Internet providers to treat content equally, “will ultimately be solved by competition in the long run,” he predicted. Google and other Silicon Valley firms have lobbied for legislation, while companies like Comcast and Verizon Communications have opposed it, arguing that such a measure would stymie broadband growth. “None of us want any kind of heavy-handed regulation,” McLaughlin said, adding that sponsors are refining bill language. “There may be details where the legislation ought to move in a different direction, [but] it should move forward.”

Two weeks ago, Alan Davidson, Google’s Washington policy counsel, told an FTC policy workshop that not all network management is anticompetitive. That followed a statement made over in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, by Vincent Dureau, Google’s head of TV technology, who said the Web infrastructure “is not going to offer the quality of service customers expect.” Ironically, Dureau offered to work together with cable companies to combine its technology for searching video and TV footage and its tailored advertising with the cable networks high-quality delivery of programming. This very idea, however, could run afoul of a network neutrality law. One thing’s for sure, a year ago, Google was taking a much harder line. Here’s an excerpt from Senate testimony by Vint Cerf, Google’s vice president and chief Internet evangelist, in February 2006, which presents a much starker picture of competition and emphatically calls for strong Congressional action:

“For the foreseeable future most Americans will face little choice among broadband carriers. Enshrining a rule that permits carriers to discriminate in favor of certain kinds or sources of services would place those carriers in control of online activity. Allowing broadband carriers to reserve huge amounts of bandwidth for their own services will not give consumers the broadband Internet our country and economy need.”

I’m not here to bash Google. It’s just fun to watch its policy side try to keep up with its aggressiveness in seeking revenue opportunities in the digital economy. In line with that, perhaps Google is realizing the truth of what critics are saying: as it is currently proposed, network neutrality will pre-empt beneficial business models, such as the ad-supported cable TV search idea above. Invoking the FTC, the company seems to be leaning toward the more reasonable position that net neutrality rules should be constructed to address problems when they actually occur, not on supposition. Google’s actual position might be more clear when we learn what exactly is the “different direction” it’s urging with Congressional legislation. Stay tuned. Thanks to James Gattuso at Technology Liberation Front for the pointer.