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Google’s ‘open Internet’ proposal looks disappointingly conventional

Back in prehistoric times, when Google was going public, its founders wrote in its stock registration statement: “Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.”

I suggested in response that good intentions such as that were often thwarted by little things, like showers of money. But it was 2004, an innocent time, before smart phones and video that could be downloaded on your handset, and the message of hope being wholesaled by Larry Page and Sergey Brin seemed uplifting.

Now we’re in the post-iPhone era, and wouldn’t you know it? Google is a conventional company: It’s trying to monopolize a market just like a conventional Bigfoot like Microsoft would, and it’s trying to do so with the conventional corporate weapons of guile and misdirection.

What prompts my disillusionment is a document Google issued a few weeks ago jointly with Verizon, the nation’s biggest wireless communications company and therefore a very conventional company.

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Their “joint policy proposal for an open Internet” posed as a defense of network neutrality the principle that Internet service providers can’t discriminate in transmitting anyone’s data to users over anyone else’s.

In other words, no special deals by which, say, Google pays Time Warner Cable a fee so that its search pages get to subscribers faster than Yahoo’s. Or by which Disney pays for its video streams to load faster than Fox’s.

Buried in there, however, were a couple of “buts.”

But, they said, network neutrality shouldn’t apply to “wireless broadband” — which happens to be a market in which Verizon already leads, and where the phone company and Google expect to make gobs of money in the future.

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But, they also said, even in wired broadband, which is the flavor that comes into home computers via cable or DSL modems, there should be an exemption for service providers to offer new, “differentiated” services — assuming the providers otherwise comply with net neutrality.

The companies didn’t say what they thought these new services might be, other than that they might include entertainment or gaming, or life-saving functions such as health monitoring. But, they said, it should be kosher to give these novel apps priority on the network.

Net neutrality advocates, a group that should include anyone without a major financial stake in a company that stands to profit from such discrimination, properly warn that this initiative is a Trojan horse.

The proposal pays lip service to a principle that, until recently, Google assiduously defended in Washington. But it quietly exempts the technology for which both companies expect a rapidly expanding market. Who would benefit more from discriminatory policies on the wireless Web than the nation’s largest wireless carrier and its largest search company? (It’s a rhetorical question.)

How does this square with Google’s corporate slogan, “Don’t be evil,” which was also featured in that 2004 registration statement? It’s hard to say. At the time, Page and Brin explained the slogan broadly, as doing “good things for the world” even at the risk of short-term gains. So it seemed to be more of an aspirational mantra than a hard-and-fast rule, in the same sense that Intel and Hewlett-Packard bragged about not laying off workers right up until the day they decided to start laying off workers.

Since then, Google has been accused of helping the Chinese government censor the Web and collecting personal data without people’s knowledge, so its definition of “evil” still seems a bit amorphous.

To be fair, net neutrality advocates praised some elements of the joint proposal. The Electronic Frontier Foundation likes the idea of specifying the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to act on net neutrality complaints, because it clarifies the FCC’s currently ambiguous jurisdiction while limiting its ability to stick its nose into issues such as decency standards on the Web.

But it questions other provisions, such as the exemption from net neutrality for “additional online services” on the wired Web. EFF says this could be “the exception that swallows the nondiscrimination rule.”

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A great deal of innovation we’re likely to get on the Web in coming years will arguably fall within the “additional online services” corral. Video streaming, software applications, medical recordkeeping, online classrooms, who knows what. If there is an exemption for new services, you can bet that platoons of industry lawyers will be deployed to make sure their clients’ offerings get defined that way.

The obvious drawback in that case would be that as major players move their services into their walled gardens, they’d have less incentive to care about the quality of life on the main, neutral web. Right now, one thing that keeps the Internet operating as a level playing field is that everyone has to play on the same field — entrepreneurs, Google, and Google’s present and potential competitors. Theoretically, everyone has a stake in maintaining equal access, so they don’t have to pay fees to thousands of service providers to make sure their apps don’t get shunted to a cyber-siding in favor of a rival who outbid them for the fast track.

But allow new services to get special treatment, and what’s left of the public Web may come to resemble the ghost town in “Bad Day at Black Rock,” bypassed by the new interstate and populated by crooks and thugs, with the law laid down by a guy who looks like Ernest Borgnine.

Google says all these concerns are based on “myths.” It says it hasn’t sold out net neutrality, but is still “working … tirelessly for an open Internet.” It concedes that its proposal to keep the wireless Web free from regulation for now is a change from its former position, which means that “myth” is actually true. But it points out that it expects Congress to keep a “watchful eye” on the matter and step in if needed.

Same with that carve-out for new services — the FCC would have full rights to monitor these services and “intervene where necessary.”

To which I say, sure — Congress and government regulators just love to interfere with the established franchises of powerful commercial interests. Look how easy it was to get healthcare reform.

Finally, Google says it’s ridiculous for us to worry that it and Verizon would try to manipulate policy on the wireless Web for their own purposes. “We’re not so presumptuous,” Google assures us. They’re merely offering a proposal.

We can take them at their word, can’t we? They’re not a conventional company.

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Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.


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