Google lashes out at critic over 'payola punditry'

D.C. lobbyist Scott Cleland is paid by AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and others to assail Google, which he does on a daily basis. Now his adversary is fighting back--at least a little.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read

Google's staff representatives in Washington, D.C., are famously mild-mannered. But they showed a flash of steel on Thursday in a response to an incendiary article written by a political adversary paid by AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and other communications companies.

The article in question was written by Scott Cleland, who alleged that Google is not paying its "fair share of the Internet's cost." He calculated that it uses 16.5 percent of all consumer Internet traffic this year yet pays only a fraction of that in bandwidth costs.

Cleland's anti-Net neutrality group, NetCompetition.org, is paid by telecommunications and cable companies to be a full-time, 24-7 Google critic. Some examples of Cleland-isms: "Google steals," it connives in a "modern-day Machiavellian plot," and its executives dress funny.

Google has generally let those fusillades--and those creative astroturfing efforts organized against it--pass without much public comment. But Cleland's latest article prompted Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom counsel, to respond.

On the company's blog, Whitt lashed out at what he called Cleland's "payola punditry." He said: "We don't fault Mr. Cleland for trying to do his job. But it's unfortunate that the phone and cable companies funding his work would rather launch poorly researched broadsides than help solve consumers' problems."

And: "Mr. Cleland's calculations about YouTube's impact are similarly flawed. Here he confuses "market share" with 'traffic share.' YouTube's share of video traffic is decidedly smaller than its market share. And typical YouTube traffic takes up far less bandwidth than downloading or streaming a movie."

In other words, a low-quality streaming YouTube video takes only a small fraction of the bandwidth of a high-definition TV show, which iTunes is now offering. Another way to make that point is to realize that one company may sell a million vehicles and another may sell 100,000, but that doesn't say anything about the total vehicle weight--a million bicycles have nowhere near the same mass as 100,000 Mack trucks.

For his part, in two brief telephone conversations on Thursday, Cleland stands by his work. He says, regarding his corporate sponsors: "I am fully disclosed."

About the criticisms raised by Google, Cleland replied: "I took a difficult subject that's never been written about before...This was a straightforward, transparent attempt to estimate something of significance."

Don't think this debate is going to be over anytime soon. The telecommunications and cable lobbyists turned to Cleland around the same time as Google and its left-coast allies (eBay, Amazon.com) were on the legislative attack and demanding sweeping, intrusive Net neutrality laws. Congress rejected them at the time. But with the Democrats about to control the legislative and executive branches, and with President-elect Barack Obama's clearly stated views on the topic, look for round two in the Net neutrality wars, contra my earlier predictions, to erupt next year.

Disclaimer: Declan McCullagh is married to a Google employee.