Google and the Evolving Challenge of Net Neutrality

August 12, 2013

Google Net NeutralityGoogle has long been one of the most vigorous advocates of fair and open Internet access.  For this reason, its recent comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a complaint proceeding surprised industry observers.  In that proceeding, Google argued against some of the key principles of net neutrality.  Now, many are beginning to wonder if net neutrality is losing one of its key supporters.

Net neutrality is a public policy principle favoring open access to content and services using the Internet.  Proponents of net neutrality advocate an environment of laws, regulations, and standards that prevents the companies that provide Internet access (e.g., Internet service providers and telecommunications service providers) from making certain content or services more readily accessible to end users.

Net neutrality is intended to create a policy environment in which the parties that control access to the Internet do not favor certain online content and services.  One of the core goals of net neutrality is open accessibility of all online materials.

Google has traditionally argued actively and effectively in favor of net neutrality.  Its interest in open Internet access is understandable.  In its role as the world’s leading online search service, Google benefits significantly from an environment in which vast amounts of online content and services are widely accessible.

However, Google’s world continues to grow more diverse and complex.  Its business interests now extend far beyond its core online search functions.  For example, Google is now also an Internet access provider through its Google Fiber operation.

Google Fiber is the company’s business unit now in the process of providing broadband data facilities and services to an increasing number of cities throughout the United States.  Through its Google Fiber effort, Google is now also an Internet service provider.

In a recent complaint to the FCC, Douglas McClendon alleged that the terms of service used by Google Fiber are not consistent with the public interest.  Specifically, McClendon objected to the Google Fiber prohibition against customers connecting their own network servers to the Google Fiber network.

When the FCC requested that Google Fiber respond to the McClendon allegations, the company raised arguments that have traditionally been made by the opponents of net neutrality.  Those arguments include the contention that broadband network operators must have broad control over the use of their networks in order to ensure operational efficiency and effectiveness.

In addition to the arguments made by Google to the FCC, it is also possible that strategic business concerns influence the Google Fiber terms of service.  For example, to the extent that Google Fiber plans to sell additional broadband access management services to businesses, its prohibition against interconnection of customer-provided servers to the Google Fiber network could be seen as an attempt to give itself a future commercial competitive advantage.

Google’s apparent willingness to abandon, at least in part, some of the fundamental principles associated with net neutrality is troubling for supporters of open Internet access.  It also illustrates an important reason why net neutrality is so difficult to implement.  In a commercial environment in which the companies that provide Internet access also have important commercial interests in online content and a range of data-network related services, virtually all key participants have conflicting strategic interests with regard to open access to, and use of, the Internet.