So what happened last week? Did Google backtrack after getting caught trying to be evil about net neutrality and the mobile internet, or were they a victim of a misunderstanding (gleefully amplified by blood-thirsty Apple and RIM supporters)?
Net neutrality is a crucial issue for those of us who care about open information. We believe that the Internet is a public thoroughfare, where every information provider has the same access. Competing web sites shouldn’t have their traffic slowed down because Google or Microsoft paid more money to Verizon, Rogers, or Bell, any more than you should have to pull to the side of the road to let someone in a more expensive car pass you.
Carriers in search of a business plan
For obvious reasons, the Internet providers don’t see it that way. They’ve ended up stuck in the rut of commodity service, with the inevitable race to the bottom for price, and are desperate to find some new revenue. The mobile Internet providers are a little better off because they can at least lock customers into three-year contracts by giving them subsidized smartphones, but it’s still clear that someone like Verizon would be thrilled be able to take a big bag of money from Google in exchange for letting Google sites load a little faster than anyone else’s.
It turns out, though, that that’s not what Google was trying to do.
Neutral in what sense?
The Google-Verizon kerfuffle draws attention to a different, and trickier part of the debate. What if, instead of discriminating by provider (Google vs Facebook), carriers discriminated by traffic type? In other words, what if streaming audio and video got priority handling to avoid jerky playback, while e-mail was delayed an extra 2-4 seconds? All streaming video would get the same treatment, whether it comes from YouTube or a student’s dorm-room start-up, and all e-mail would get the same treatment, whether it’s from IBM or a LOL cats fan list.
According to Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, this is what Verizon and Google were talking about all along: not favouring one provider over another, but favouring one content type over another.
Is it still evil?
I expect that many people who support net neutrality for providers won’t feel so strongly about net neutrality for content types, because it doesn’t have the same appearance of unfairness.
Going back to the thoroughfare analogy, we have sidewalks where only pedestrians are allowed, paths where only cyclists are allowed, crossings that pedestrians aren’t allowed to use, and superhighways where only motor vehicles are allowed. Buses and carpoolers are sometimes allowed to use a faster lane, trucks are sometimes required to stay in the slower lanes, and so on. Why can’t we have different lanes for different kinds of network traffic, too?
Net neutrality makes sense for content types, too
There are, however, four compelling arguments in favour of net neutrality by content type as well as provider:
- Pandora’s Box — it seems straight-forward enough to give streaming video priority over email, but how far might carriers take it? Will carriers throttle IM during the next G8 summit to make it harder for protesters to organize? Will government regulators prefer content types that are more popular among the old than the young?
- Business/content-type alignment — as the owner of the world’s top video site, Google has a strong interest in making video on the mobile web faster, even if it means that its competitors’ videos are faster too. This kind of thing could turn evil fast — imagine Adobe and Apple in a bidding war to determine whether Flash should be delivered faster or slower than other content types, or the recording industry lobbying to throttle bittorrent so much that it becomes useless.
- Innovation — the Internet already existed when HTML and HTTP arrived on the scene 20 years ago. If the net hadn’t been neutral then, perhaps priority would have gone to important existing protocols like telnet and FTP, and HTTP (and HTML) might have been slow enough to turn off early adopters. We don’t know what The Next Big Thing will be, but we do know that regulators respond slowly to change. Why shut the door on innovation?
- Routing around censorship — seriously, how long will it take a few enterprising developers to realize that they can build an “accelerated download” app that allows other traffic to masquerade as video (or whatever has top priority). Seconds? Less? You can make anything look like anything else on the Internet, and everyone thinks that his/her traffic is most important.
It’s OK to be wrong sometimes
Google is a company that embraces failure, which, perhaps, is why it has so many successes: Google puts products out early, lets us play with them, then feeds the ones that succeed (e.g. Gmail) and kills the ones that don’t (e.g. Wave).
Perhaps Google is willing to try the same thing with ideas — they’re not necessarily evil for suggesting dropping net neutrality for content types, but they are wrong. Let’s treat the whole thing as a failed project and move on, concentrating on making the net (mobile or desktop) faster for all providers, and all content types.