In covering the Google Books settlement I’ve always been struck by how many people seem to deeply distrust Google. This week, the company gave those critics new ammunition. In a joint blog post from Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Verizon Wireless CEO Lowell McAdam, Google backtracked on its longstanding commitment to the principle of net neutrality. If you’re not familiar with the principle, the New York Times today published an excellent round-up of thoughts on why net neutrality matters, and what the Google/Verizon alliance means.
“Think about your cable service,” explains Public Knowledge’s Gigi Sohn. “Do you get to choose what comes on the basic programming tier or on the other tiers that costs extra? No, you don’t. You have choice on the Internet because the companies that control access to it (largely cable and telephone companies) were prevented from picking winners and losers.” Under the new recommendations from Google and Verizon, she explains, that could all change. “The Google and Verizon policy framework would allow Internet service providers to give priority or ‘managed’ access services to content and applications providers so their Web sites load faster or have better quality of service,” Sohn writes.
Google and Verizon deny they have any “deal” in place. But their “policy proposal,” if adopted by the U.S. government, would effectively allow broadband and network providers, like Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon, to create “premium” services for web content. That’s troubling on many levels, experts say. “Google, eBay, Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare are just a few of the thousands of companies that flourished on the Internet, precisely because there were no gatekeepers and no toll takers,” observes venture capitalist Brad Burnham in his Times contribution. In a world of “public” and “premium” Internet service tiers, however, “young startup companies will have difficulty finding financing and building businesses of scale,” Burnham adds.
What does that mean for innovation? Imagine having to negotiate with Verizon to carry your new digital book business on par with your would-be competitors. “Had there been a two-tier Internet in 1995, likely, Barnes and Noble would have destroyed Amazon, Microsoft Search would have beaten out Google, Skype would have never gotten started,” writes Tim Wu, author of the forthcoming book the Master Switch. “We’d all be the losers.”
What’s also troubling, however, is that Google, long an advocate for an unqualified open Internet, is now laying the groundwork in Washington for what critics say is a competing Internet couched as “additional services,” a development that John Bergmayer at Public Knowledge says could “freeze” the Internet in 2010, “with companies like [Google] on top.” With e-books and e-book platforms just getting warmed up, net neutrality holds serious implications for the book world, publishers and authors, as well as booksellers, libraries, and service providers and institutions of higher education.
It’s hard to be upset at corporations for acting like corporations, and what ultimately happens with net neutrality is still in the hands of government. But at the same time, wasn’t Google supposed to be different? Hasn’t Google has pretty much traded on the public’s faith? The Google Book Settlement, for example, was sold almost like a public works project. Yet throughout the settlement debate, critics and opponents of the deal have questioned just how deep Google’s commitment to the public runs. This kind of about-face from Google on net neutrality, and make no mistake, despite Schmidt’s support for what he calls a “public” Internet, this is a major shift, will only add fuel to the fire.
I can already hear the questions: Will the Google books database always be carried on the “public Internet?” Will an upgraded version of the GBS database be offered to premium customers, giving libraries in the well-funded suburbs yet another advantage over libraries in inner cities? If you thought the questions were complex enough for one Internet, Google is now talking about creating another.