Google takes diplomatic route on Net neutrality

In D.C., Google reiterates support for Net neutrality regulation, but stays out of debate on reclassifying broadband to give FCC more authority.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read
The dining room, aka "South Lawn Cafe," at the D.C. Googleplex, where employees can enjoy free lunch. Anne Broache/CNET

In Washington, D.C., Google is learning there's nothing wrong with a little diplomacy.

In a Federal Communications Commission filing earlier this week, Google reiterated its support for Net neutrality regulation, but it didn't take sides in the ongoing debate over whether the FCC should reclassify broadband servicesto help ensure the agency has the authority to enforce that regulation.

The FCC's authority was challenged earlier this month when a federal appeals court sided with Comcast, ruling that the FCC had no legal basis for censuring the company for violating its Net neutrality principles.

Net neutrality proponents, including the Open Internet Coalition--a group that Google helped found to promote open access to the Internet--have asked the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet services as a telecom service instead of an information service to make certain that the agency has the legal teeth to enforce new regulations concerning broadband.

In a blog post explaining the company's position, Rick Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, wrote that the search giant was more concerned with ensuring Net neutrality policies instead of participating in a debate over the legal gymnastics it will take to ensure the FCC has authority for regulating broadband services.

"To us, this has never been about regulatory rigidity but about protecting consumers and keeping the Internet open for innovators," Whitt wrote. "So while we're not wed to any particular legal theory to justify the FCC's jurisdiction, we do believe some minimal oversight over broadband networks is essential."

In its actual filing with the FCC, Google diplomatically tried to position itself outside the reclassification debate.

"We continue to believe that the FCC has ample legal authority to adopt broadband openness rules" and that we support whatever jurisdictional fix is "most sustainable legally," Whitt referenced in his blog.

This differs from the position of the OIC, which includes companies, such as Skype, Facebook, and TiVo.

"Post-Comcast v. FCC, consumers lack any protection against violations of the Internet Policy Statement, or against discriminatory treatment of content or applications over broadband providers' networks," OIC Executive Director Markham Erickson said in a statement. "It is imperative that the commission move expeditiously to solidify its legal authority by initiating a generic proceeding, through the circulation of a public notice, which would lay out a regulatory framework for broadband networks and services based on solid legal footing."

In D.C., a quick study
Google is relatively new to the Washington, D.C., lobbying scene. While the big phone companies for decades have had teams of lawyers and lobbyists working the nation's capital on behalf of their interest, pouring millions of dollars into causes and campaigns, Google has only been in D.C. in force for a few years.

But the need for a strong presence in the nation's capital has been growing, especially as the Internet giant faces increased scrutiny over a bevy of issues including, privacy, copyright concerns related to its Google Book Search settlement, digital rights issues, and competition surrounding online advertising. In several instances it's been outmaneuvered, most notably in its proposed deal with Yahoo in search.

But Google has been a quick study and the company has increased its lobbying efforts. In 2009, it spent $4 million on lobbying in D.C., according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act Database. This is up from $1.52 million in 2007 and $2.84 million in 2008.

Now it appears that Google is handling the Net neutrality debate with more finesse and diplomatic care. The company is trying to walk a thin line between pushing the FCC toward finishing its rule making without encouraging the agency to broaden its authority too much.

Lobbying for an open Internet, Google is still keeping pressure on the government to impose rules that will ensure broadband providers can't slow or block traffic running on their networks. While broadband service providers mostly disagree with Google that Net neutrality rules are needed, the companies are finding common ground with the search giant.

Going 'light'
Last month, CEO Eric Schmidt and Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg co-authored an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal praising aspects of the FCC's National Broadband Plan, which will provide a road map for policymakers and lawmakers over the next decade to promote affordable and ubiquitous broadband. But the executives warned that when it comes to regulating the Internet, the FCC needs to take a "light" approach. And they encouraged the FCC to continue "creating the right climate for private investment and market-driven innovation to advance broadband."

This is not the first time the two companies have come together to ask for a "light" regulatory approach. In October of last year, Schmidt and Verizon Wireless CEO Lowell McAdam posted a joint blog highlighting their agreements on the Net neutrality issue and calling for the feds to ensure the Internet "remains an unrestricted and open platform--where people can access any content (so long as it's legal), as well as the services and applications of their choice."

While Google may be advocating for "light" regulation, the company believes that some regulation is needed to ensure broadband providers don't abuse their position as the gatekeepers to the Internet.

"Unlike other Internet stakeholders, last-mile broadband providers have the ability to carry, to intercept, to inspect, to manipulate, and to allocate capacity for others entities' Internet traffic over their broadband access networks," Google said in its filing. "Today the evidence shows that the increasing vertical integration between content and conduit only heightens broadband providers' financial incentives to use that unique network control to operate only in their private interests."

But AT&T has argued that if new Net neutrality regulations are imposed, Google, which has begun offering voice services through Google Voice, needs to adhere to the rules as well. Google argues that it does not have the same control over customers' traffic as broadband providers.

Specifically, Google said it does not have "the ability to interfere with the routing of other entities' traffic." It can't "make some packets go faster (which necessarily slows other packets) at the last-mile router." The company added, "Servers, data centers, and private fiber backbone networks do not possess the unique advantages or ability to control 'Other People's Packets' that last-mile broadband providers have."

Google also wants the new rules applied to wireline broadband services as well as wireless services, something broadband providers, AT&T and Verizon Communications strongly oppose.

In its filing, Google pointed out that AT&T's "steadfast unilateral refusal to allow the Sling mobile app on its 3G network only highlights the need for a neutral third- party arbiter in the mobile space to conclusively distinguish between reasonable network management and an unacceptable anticompetitive practice."

Even though Google is pushing its stated Net neutrality positions, the company is taking a less aggressive stance when it comes to the reclassification issue. First Google said it believes that the FCC has the authority to impose new rules and enforce them. But in the wake of the Comcast decision, the company recognizes this authority has been questioned and needs to be cleared up. Google stopped short of saying how this should be done.

"To be clear, Google is not wedded at this time to any particular legal theory to justify the commission's oversight authority over broadband networks," the company said. "We support whatever is sustainable legally."