Monday, August 09, 2010

Will The Net Stay Neutral If Google Doesn't Want It To?

In a perceptive article in Slate last week, Tim Wu noted with some alarm the news reports that Google was working with Verizon to arrange for paid preferential treatment of Google's content on Verizon's networks. Although Google officially denied the reports, some insiders say otherwise, according to Wu. And considering the size and influence of both Google and Verizon, something like this could affect most of us who use the Net, which nowadays means most of us, period.

Net neutrality is democracy applied to packets. In keeping with the original vision of many of the Internet's founders, a truly neutral net treats every server and every user the same, to the extent possible technically. Obviously, some websites can get overwhelmed by traffic and some Internet connections are slower than others, but these are issues at the ends of the communications link, not matters determined by the way the Internet is set up and operated.

As long as there is enough bandwidth to go around, net neutrality is a fairly easy thing to maintain. But in limited-bandwidth situations such as newer wireless technologies, companies that get in early with fresh business models adapted to the new technologies can sometimes play the neutrality of the web to their advantage. (Think Apple with its tightly-controlled but growing crop of iPhone apps.) This may be why Google may be talking to Verizon about ways it could pay the network to give its sites a boost in terms of speed, access, or other advantages. But this would violate the time-honored principle of net neutrality, which Google itself has promoted in the past, according to Wu. He hopes the Federal Communications Commission will gird up its legal loins, so to speak, and start issuing rules that will protect net neutrality from intrusions of what Wu terms "internet payola."

From an ethical point of view, what concerns me about this matter may not be so much whether the net stays neutral or not, as much as whether we'd know about it if net neutrality is abandoned. The term "payola" arose back in the 1950s when record companies secretly paid pop radio stations to play certain tunes more often. The dishonest part was that these payments were not disclosed to the listeners—people who heard the tunes more often just thought the stations were honestly responding to public demand. Payola is a form of corruption in which supposedly unbiased gatekeepers are being secretly paid to promote certain products over others. It's in the same moral category as the bribing of judges: payments for favors goes against the stated principles of the institution. So the secrecy aspect is an essential feature of the problem.

Suppose Google goes out and spends X billion dollars buying favorable treatment from Verizon and other networks, and then publicly brags that you're going to get better access because Google has paid for it. That might look like bullying by the big boy on the block, and other websites without such deep pockets might protest that it's unfair, but at least everyone would know what's going on. We would no longer have an institution called "net neutrality," true, but we would at least know the new rules of the game. This would be different than if Google paid for these favors and didn't tell anybody, keeping net neutrality in appearance but not in reality. And that would be a problem.

It's a little creepy to think about the Internet's hundredth birthday (which I certainly won't see). Its half-century mark will come around 2033, which is only 23 years from now. Will the present basic form and function of the Internet still be around then, or will we look on it as something akin to the giant railway networks that once crisscrossed the U. S., only to be superseded by highways and airports? Suppose nearly everything moves to wireless by then: that might mean Apple's iPhone way of doing business prevails, and what kind of network experience you have would critically depend on what kind of hardware you own, which isn't the case now. That kind of thing gives Google the creeps.

Something that will not change, however, is the basic principle that any obstructions to any port of a communications network harm the system in a way that affects everyone else, and the bigger the system, the more harm is done. This is because the value of a network to any one user depends on how many other nodes can be reached. So a multi-tiered "Internet" with fast lanes and slow lanes would be that much less valuable, because reducing access to any part of the network lowers its value to everyone.

For this reason alone, we are not likely to see significant future fragmentation of the current form of the Internet, ethics or no ethics. This principle has triumphed time and again in the history of telecommunications, going all the way back to the telegraph, which originally served mainly wealthy clients who used it for business transactions. And for various reasons, both economic and regulatory, the telegraph companies never really got it. The idea of truly universal service didn't come along until the newer telephone network was consolidated in the early 1900s, by which time the Bell System had figured out this more-the-merrier principle. The principle of telephones for everyone sounded democratic and patriotic, and it was, but it was also plain good business sense.

So while we can worry if we like that Google is going to pay for the end of net neutrality, I suspect experience with such a system would soon show that it militates against the more-the-merrier principle, which would be violated by making a few nodes better, because it really just amounts to making all the other nodes worse. As long as Google, or anybody else, tells us what they're up to, I see no fundamental ethical problem with it. But I don't think it would end up working as well as they might hope.

Sources: Tim Wu's article, "Evil? The alleged Google-Verizon deal that's endangering net neutrality," appeared in the Aug. 6 online edition of Slate at

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