When The Wall Street Journal ran an article today on a Google plan to add "edge caching" servers at key internet service provider facilities, this fairly common practice to accelerate content delivery to audiences via the Web was mangled into a political imbrollio. To wit, their lede:
The celebrated openness of the Internet -- network providers are not supposed to give preferential treatment to any traffic -- is quietly losing powerful defenders.
Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.
Despite the hyperbolic tone and confused claims in Monday's Journal story, I want to be perfectly clear about one thing: Google remains strongly committed to the principle of net neutrality, and we will continue to work with policymakers in the years ahead to keep the Internet free and open.
Intellectual property guru and Net Neutrality proponent Lawrence Lessig noted that his take on Google and the political ramifications of this move were a bit off-key in the WSJ article as well:
The article is an indirect effort to gin up a drama about a drama about an alleged shift in Obama's policies about network neutrality. What's the evidence for the shift? That Google allegedly is negotiating for faster service on some network pipes. And that "prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject."
Who are these "Internet scholars"? Me. ...I've not seen anything during the Obama campaign or from the transition to indicate it has shifted its view about network neutrality at all.
With more moving pieces than a Swiss watch in Washington right now, the current political environment surrounding Net Neutrality and other Web access issues during a transition in Washington's power brokers is bound to be subject to as much jockeying and bullying as possible. Today the U.S. Federal Communications Commission canceled a vote on making radio frequencies available that would provide free Internet access as a public utility, bowing to pressures from both industry advocates and politicians. There's a big push for open Web access, but plenty of pressure from all points of view keeping things comfortably in neutral for now.
Net Neutrality and related issues such as public Web wireless frequencies seem to boil down to one basic concept: Don't make audiences pay for artificial scarcity. Carriers are still free to sell "bigger pipes" and better overall service levels, but artificial cartels based on reserving audience-facing Internet bandwidth for private use will only create more challenges for publishers in the long run. If you want to have proof that this is so, just take a look at the balkanized state of mobile service carriers that lassoed content providers for many years into deals for distribution on their private networks. What publishers now confront are scattered and overpriced deals for growing but underperforming mobile markets, even as the carriers now reach for ad revenue shares to sweeten their take.
Proprietary mobile breakthroughs such as the iPhone and the Amazon's Kindle are great for publishers in many ways, but they represent a relatively small share of the potential marketplace for mobile content and ultimately just continue the myth that artificial network scarcity can benefit the publishing industry as a whole. All these devices do is lock publishers in to proprietary networks that are bound to make it harder to reach their audiences cost-effectively.
The truth is that the fastest-evolving, most cost-effective technology changes are best for publishers, making it imperative to enable an environment in which mobile and Web technology providers are not resting on proprietary laurels that hinder the development of Web and mobile markets for publishers. Without these breakthroughs, the audience reach that content producers need to make mobile networks a highly profitable distribution medium is not likely to materialize. Let's keep the future of publishing out of the hands of companies that still can't tell us whether to dial "1", an area code or nothing extra to make a phone call to the next town.
Net Neutrality will ensure that there is a cost-effective, rapidly evolving electronic distribution infrastructure that serves publishers best.