In 2006, Google co-founder Sergey Brin travelled to Washington DC, urging US Congress to support net neutrality - the principle that the internet shouldn't have a fast lane. Google was net neutrality's most powerful advocate. Four years later, they're its executioner. (UPDATE: Google denies, Wall Street Journal affirms New York Times.)
If the New York Times report is true (see updates below), it would be an about-face that redefines "do no evil" as "do the exact thing we've been saying was evil for four years".
It has the potential to forever change how you access the internet - and how much you pay for it.
Think of the internet as a highway. Right now, all lanes are open to everyone. Nice! That means there may be traffic jams sometimes - an Apple keynote, say, or the release of a Snookie-Bieber sex tape - but it's ultimately fair. Opponents to net neutrality - Internet Service Providers like Comcast and Verizon - want to create a special high-speed toll lane, where internet providers can decide what you'll be able to see and do, and how fast, on the internet.
If that metaphor sounds familiar, it's because I ripped it off. Here's Google CEO Eric Schmidt back in 2006:
Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody – no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional – has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can't pay.
So what happened since then? Well, a lot of complaining from corporations, but no real traction until the US Federal Communications Commission manned up to make net neutrality the law of the land last year. And Google was all for it, according their public policy blog:
The Internet was designed to empower users. Its open, "end-to-end" architecture means that users—not network providers or anyone else—decide what succeeds or fails online. It's a formula that has worked incredibly well, resulting in mind blowing innovation, incredible investment, and more consumer choice than ever.
So why is this even an issue? Because the FCC got blocked by the courts, neutering any real chance for net neutrality to be a regulated principle.
And while the government fumbled through alternate paths to preserve net neutrality, Google cosied up with Verizon to make sure those YouTube videos loaded faster than, say, Vimeo. Google couldn't beat the ISPs. So they joined them.
Here's who gets hurt when net neutrality dies: You, because you're forced into a tiered pricing structure (not unlike how you pay for extra pay-TV channels today). Smaller content providers, who can't compete monetarily with monoliths like Google, will be punished with slower load times for it. And innovation, generally, as control over what you see online, gets consolidated even further into the hands of the internet oligarchy.
The only company with a big enough stick to help preserve net neutrality even without the FCC? That's Google. Or was, rather. But hey, at least all those highly relevant ads will be hitting your computer in record time.
In case this doesn't seem like such a big deal, take it from someone who knows a lot more about this than I do:
Creativity, innovation and a free and open marketplace are all at stake in this fight. Please call your representative (202-224-3121) and let your voice be heard.
Oh, right. That's from Schmidt's letter, too. And what do you know! That number still works. [New York Times]
UPDATE: Google Public Policy has denied the reports via Twitter. We're attempting to contact someone at Google for more details.
UPDATE 2: Google has responded to our request for comment via email with a very clear denial of the New York Times story:
The NYT is quite simply wrong. We have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google or YouTube traffic. We remain as committed as we always have been to an open Internet.
UPDATE 3: Bloomberg is now reporting that Google and Verizon have been talking, but with a different focus:
Verizon Communications Inc. and Google Inc. have struck their own accord on handling Internet traffic, as both participate in talks by U.S. officials on Web policy, two people briefed by the companies said.
The compromise as described would restrict Verizon from selectively slowing Internet content that travels over its wires, but wouldn't apply such limits to Internet use on mobile phones, according to the people, who spoke yesterday and asked not to be identified before an announcement.
UPDATE 4: Now Verizon has also made a statement that rebuts the New York Times report:
The NYT article regarding conversations between Google and Verizon is mistaken. It fundamentally misunderstands our purpose. As we said in our earlier FCC filing, our goal is an Internet policy framework that ensures openness and accountability, and incorporates specific FCC authority, while maintaining investment and innovation. To suggest this is a business arrangement between our companies is entirely incorrect.
UPDATE 6: Concerning that Bloomberg report, Google spokesperson Mistique Cano said in an email, "We have no announcement at this point." Which is a far cry from the outright denial they shot at the New York Times and a possible indicator that that's the real story here: Google and Verizon have reached a deal not to selectively slow traffic over wires, but that mobile is fair game.
UPDATE 7: The Wall Street Journal has weighed in now and is reporting with the New York Times:
People briefed on the tentative agreement, however, said it could provide a framework for legislation that would codify some of the Federal Communications Commission's net-neutrality principles. It would, however, allow phone and cable companies to offer faster, priority delivery of Internet traffic for companies that pay extra for the service, these people said.
It's notable that the Google denial says very specifically that Google has not had discussions about paying for carriage of Google and YouTube. But that doesn't mean they haven't spoken with Verizon about creating a framework that would undermine net neutrality, generally. The Wall Street Journal report seems to support that interpretation.
UPDATE 8: One last (hopefully) point that may have gotten swallowed up: The one thing that everyone agrees on here is that there are definitely negotiations going on between Verizon and Google, and that the FCC is overseeing the process. How it all shakes out, especially after the response to conflicting reports, remains to be seen.
UPDATE 9: And now FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has weighed in:
Any outcome, any deal that doesn't preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet for consumers and entrepreneurs will be unacceptable.
UPDATE 10: The New York Times has given us the following emailed statement:
We stand by our reporting which is based on information from sources in a position to know about the conversations. Google's comment about The New York Times story refutes something The Times story didn't say.
There's a lot of murkiness here, both in the wording of the original New York Times story and the statements from both Google and Verizon. Again: Talks are in progress between the two companies, and we should (hopefully) know what comes of them sooner than later.