Google Will Rue The Day It Invited the Gov’t to Net Neutrality

A few years ago, Google started poking the government to act on Net Neutrality.  The motive behind Google’s goal is well intentioned.  But practically, it is foolish.  We’re inviting a beast into our industry that is more devastating than any beast we’ve yet imagined.  Eventually, Google will come to oppose the very legislation that it helped create.

The main problem with Net Neutrality is that we don’t need it.  The market works.  There are many choices for network access today, and you can access your favorite sites from Amazon to Wikileaks from almost anywhere in America.  We have access to the internet at home, in libraries, in schools and at work.  Who is not getting access again?

For individuals, the real debate is that some people want more bandwidth to more remote areas and they want someone else to pay for it.  Steve Wozniak, the eccentric co-founder of Apple, was very clear about this.  He wants to live on a remote hill, pay $29/mo, and have everyone else be required to pay to run the cables to his secluded hide away for fast internet access.  Steve’s argument is not new.  Many people have made the same argument far more elegantly.  They claim it “costs too much” for the high speed links and that dialup is unreasonably slow, or that “there is only one provider in my area”, etc.  None of those arguments hold.  These very same people still have access through wireless, through dialup, at work, at school, at the library, and at about a half million Starbucks or McDonalds across the planet.  And their access grows every single day!  They just want it cheaper.

Finally, the most important part of net neutrality is ensuring that content is available to everyone.  (No, this doesn’t mean you should get to watch your “Family Guy” or your favorite TV show for free)  Most of us hold at least some fear that eventually a big company (Comcast, AT&T, or Verizon, or Google) will screw the little guy by using their monopoly to restrict content and maximize profits.  This fear is reasonable,  because censorship on a grand scale would be a horrible thing for all of us.  But it’s not happening, and there is no evidence of it happening any time soon.  Further, if it ever did happen, customers can and would revolt.  Competition provides us everything we need.

But our fears of corporations are grossly misplaced.  There is someone far more scary, with vastly greater power that we should fear – the US government.  There is simply no company that can wreck devastation at the scale of the US government. Who’s rules are more scary – Comcast’s rules (sorry to pick on you, Comcast!), which would only apply to those that pay Comcast money?  Or Uncle Sam’s rules?  And every 4 years we elect a new set of politicians.  Even if we trust the politicians today, what happens when we get into a war, or have a 9/11-type event, and suddenly a “temporary” cease of terrorist communications is required?  (Did we forget about the TSA already?)  Who’s the terrorist?  Is Wikileaks a terrorist?  Is Wikipedia?  What if you have a science blog about particle physics?  Can you be shut down too?  The government is what you should fear.  Not a piddly little Microsoft, Google, or Comcast. 

Ok, but why will Google rue this?

With continued prodding from Google and others, legislation will be passed, and today was a starting point.  Whatever they pass will be  costly to companies and will cause that cost burden to be passed on to customers like you and me.  Further, it will put America at a disadvantage in our global marketplace.  All to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

The first problem they’ll create is that of cost.  Every law has enforcement, and that means we pay people to define the specific rules, monitor compliance with those rules, and enforce punishments for those that do not obey.  This will cost billions of dollars and be spread into the margins of every content provider and ISP in America.  Of course, those companies will pass the cost onto their customers.  This means the price of DSL, Cable, AOL, and Netflix will all rise.  (I still think costs are heading down overall, but they could decrease faster without net-neutrality)

Second, it will snowball from “fair access” into content filters (aka censorship).  Initially, it might include banning certain forms of pornography.  It might even seem like something you agree with.  But with each new regulation, our freedoms are diminished.  Then, we might enter into a particular international conflict “requiring” a ban on certain types of communications to keep us safe.  With the content filters in place, the variety and types of information we can publish and read diminishes, and it is all out of our control.   You can’t switch providers to escape the unfairness of it all.

Finally, remember that America is in a global marketplace.  If our legislators legislate too much, Internet companies will simply move out of the country, taking the jobs, the profits, and the tax revenues with them.  This has already happened – gambling is alive and well on the internet – it just runs out of Costa Rica, Antigua, and other disputable places – leaving consumers at risk while simultaneously sticking America with a bill to ensure that gambling doesn’t happen here.  How silly!  Now the government will need to block outside access, or credit card payments to certain areas in order to keep Americans safe from information.

Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”  But with our own Government censors and the massive costs created to enforce “net neutrality”, Google will find this mission impossible to accomplish.  And that is when Google will rue the day…


Note: This article solely represents the views of a far-too-opinionated software engineer, and does not represent the views of his employer in any way.

3 thoughts on “Google Will Rue The Day It Invited the Gov’t to Net Neutrality

  • December 22, 2010 at 10:01 am

    You raise some good points, but there are some leaps in your reasoning.

    First, there are many definitions of network neutrality. The one at the top of the Wikipedia article you link to does not talk about making access universally available, yet universal access seems to be one of your major points. Nothing I’ve read about the current bill addresses universal access.

    Second, you suggest that the government is getting involved because of Google’s prodding. In fact, the government was already involved and very likely to get even moreso. If Google didn’t poke them, other special interests would have (and did). Given the inevitability of further government involvement, it makes sense for Google (or any corporation with a dog in the show) to try to shape the form of that intrusion. I agree the current bill is bad, but imagine how much worse it could have been if Google wasn’t lobbying for its interests (which are better aligned with the people than those of some of the other powerful players).

    Markets work when there’s enough competition. Nearly every household in the United States gets its Internet access from either a telephone company that has a regional monopoly or from a cable company that has a regional monopoly. I’d call that insufficient competition.

    Furthermore, both of those businesses have a vested interest in discriminating against certain kinds of content that are developing into competition. The cable companies would prefer that you use their video offerings rather than streaming internet video. Telephone companies don’t want you to switch to a VoIP service. So we have regional monopolies with a vested interest in discriminating on content. Such discrimination would drive up prices and stifle emerging markets.

    Outright blocking would, of course, invoke backlash both from customers and the government. So we haven’t yet seen widespread discrimination. But we have seen some discrimination. Comcast was actively forging packets to drop bittorrent connections.

    Network neutrality is about keeping markets open for innovation. Early DSL contracts often forbade customers from connecting routers or switches to the network–one connection entitled you to access the internet with one computer, period. Comcast allows me to use a TiVo only because government regulation mandated CableCard technology. And that hasn’t stopped them from rendering my older, pre-CableCard TiVo nearly useless by requiring a converter box to receive even the broadcast channels. If you cannot connect new devices to the network, then there are fewer opportunities for innovation.

    And if you want to talk about access, let’s recognize that the government is already deeply involved there as well. As you point out, schools and libraries have access today. But that’s because the city government requires the cable company or telco to provide it to the city–free of charge–as part of the extremely lucrative deal for rights-of-way and the exclusive franchise license. (And library access at my local library requires signing up for a one-hour slot days in advance.)

    “[Universal access proponents] claim it “costs too much” for the high speed links and that dialup is unreasonably slow, or that “there is only one provider in my area”, etc. None of those arguments hold.”

    Really? I’d say all of them hold.

    I usually don’t go for anecdotes, but you brought up the Woz argument, so I’ll give you my story.

    I live in a suburb of Silicon Valley, in a city of 250,000, three blocks from a state university with a student population of 15,000. There is no reliable wireless access available in my neighborhood. There are two wired providers: Comcast and AT&T. AT&T refuses to sell me their U*verse service unless I agree to give up other essential services that they already provide as part of the telephone service, and their “high-speed DSL” service is not available to most homes on my street because they are too far from the CO. The home (singular) that can get DSL is limited to 768 kbps.

    Dialup? Yes, I could do that, but only because of government involvement. When I moved into my house, the phone lines were so bad that I could not get a modem connection. Pacbell was forced to fix the lines only because of government regulations mandating minimum POTS quality. It took them six weeks, and it enabled a 14.4 kbps connection. Oh, and the number of dialup providers is dropping rapidly.

    So my only practical provider is Comcast. The price rises almost every month. Once upon a time, I paid $14.99 per month for internet service. It’s now more than $50 per month. Outages are routine. Streaming an entire Netflix movie is out of the question. Yet somehow the cable TV, which runs on the same wire, always works. Last weekend, downloading a 10 MB security update took five tries over the course of an hour. My entire neighborhood was completely offline for two days last week. The traffic is shaped and capped. Some ports are blocked. Legal torrents are sabotaged.

    So please bring on some market forces. Send me an alternative with lower prices, higher speeds, fewer conflicts of interest, higher realibility, better service, OR a non-discrimination policy. Everyone will switch, forcing Comcast and AT&T to actually compete.

    That’s a pipe dream, of course. Breaking into the market is not feasible; it’s too capital intensive. The players we have today exist only because of historic government assistance. Given all that we have given these big players (rights of way, regional monopolies, tax breaks and incentives), it seems reasonable that some basic regulation to ensure fairness and openness is not really a crazy idea.

  • December 23, 2010 at 10:14 am

    I’ll grant you that Google didn’t singlehandedly create this problem. But Google did goad the government (witness the Verizon/Google proposal from a couple months ago).

    The rest of the argument comes down to two things:
    a) You’re scared of the phone/cable companies. This is a reasonable fear. But we should not legislate for fear. We should legislate if there are problems. And you said it yourself, “we haven’t yet seen widespread discrimination”, and “Outright blocking would, of course, invoke backlash both from customers and the government”. Sounds to me like you agree the market is working.

    b) You don’t like the price. I don’t believe you when you say you don’t have viable options. You simply ruled out AT&T for some reason of your own, and you didn’t like the comcast price. Well, fine, tough on you. How many choices did you want? Have you tried DSLExtreme? Why do you expect to pay $14.99 for service that is 100x faster than what you had while your phone bill goes down because you don’t use it as much?

    Finally, what do you really *want*? Legislation won’t create new competition in the market. Legislation won’t provide you more choices. Legislation simply takes money away from someone else so that you can have a cheaper or more convenient internet plan.

    The only reasonable part of your argument is that, insofar as these companies get exclusive access to limited resources (spectrum, right-of-way, etc), some regulation is fair to ensure fair access. But we have agreed that no problem exists. Until there is a real problem, we’re talking about selfish people wanting lower internet bills and nothing more.

  • January 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    (I would have replied a while ago, but I’ve been fighting connectivity problems throughout my holiday break.)

    > I’ll grant you that Google didn’t singlehandedly create this problem. But Google did goad the government (witness the Verizon/Google proposal from a couple months ago).

    The government is already involved and it’s going to get more involved with or without any single company’s provocation. Given that it’s going to happen, it would be insane not to try to shape the form of that involvement to protect your interests. Even if you fail to get what you want, that doesn’t mean the effort was misguided.

    > You’re scared of the phone/cable companies.

    I don’t see how what I wrote led you to conclude that I’m afraid of Comcast and AT&T. I don’t fear them. This is not an emotional reaction.

    The cable company and the phone company form a duopoly that controls internet access for most people in the US. They have an inherent conflict of interest that creates incentives for them to discriminate against competition from internet services (e.g., streaming video and VoIP). Without competition, there is very little market pressure to resist these incentives. Comcast and other cable companies have already demonstrated a willingness to experiment with forms of discrimination. They backed off not because of customer outrage, but because of the threat of government intervention.

    Meanwhile, most tech companies are trying to drag us all to the cloud. These business models rely on the assumption that potential customers will have an affordable, free-flowing, high-speed, reliable connection to the internet.

    Of those attributes, free-flowing is–in my mind–central to the network neutrality debate.

    The others fall under the idea of access, which is an interesting topic (especially to the cloud-dependent businesses). I don’t consider access part of the network neutrality debate, but some people do, and you made it a central topic in your original post. The fact of the matter is that prices are rising not dropping, speed improvements are not keeping pace with the demand driven by cloud-based services, and that reliability in many areas is degrading.

    On neutrality:

    > Sounds to me like you agree the market is working.

    Then I didn’t make myself clear. There is no competition in the market. There is a duopoly that charges identical prices and provides poor service. The players are beginning to experiment with traffic discrimination that favors their proprietary services over competing services that would otherwise be available over the internet.

    In a working market, these experiments would die on the vine because competitors would jump on the opportunity to offer non-discriminatory plans.

    > The only reasonable part of your argument is that, insofar as these companies get exclusive access to limited resources (spectrum, right-of-way, etc), some regulation is fair to ensure fair access.

    It’s not just about access. It’s about discrimination in favor of the network providers’ own proprietary offerings. For example, if streaming video catches on, Comcast could lose big on their cable TV service. So they start killing Bittorrent connections (which often carry large video files, as with MiroTV) and they dial down the reliability to the point that streaming a Netflix movie is impossible and a 10-minute YouTube video is iffy (all while the cable TV signal on the same wire remains rock solid). This sure smells like they are leveraging their near-monopoly status to keep competitors out of the market. There are two ways to solve this: competition or regulation.

    Competition has not appeared because it’s too capital-intensive to get into the business.

    Regulation has proven successful in similar keeping markets open to competition and innovation For example, DSLExtreme exists because of regulations requiring the phone companies to allow competitors to lease the last mile. Another example, TiVo sells alternatives to leased cable boxes because the government requires cable companies to support the CableCARD standard.

    > Finally, what do you really *want*?

    I want network neutrality. I want oversight (regulation) to ensure that the regional monopolies and duopolies do not discriminate against innovative internet services and devices in favor of their own products. If sufficient competition arises such that market forces are enough to keep the discriminatory incentives at bay, then I’d be happy to roll back the regulations.

    On access:

    > You don’t like the price.

    I don’t like price fixing. Comcast and AT&T do not compete on price. Prices for both of them continue to rise in lock-step.

    > You simply ruled out AT&T for some reason of your own

    No. AT&T refuses to sell me a U*verse internet connection unless I give up my home phone line. The U*verse replacement for the home phone line does not offer some services that are essential to my family.

    Despite all their ads to the contrary, you cannot order any bundle you want. The only way to get an Internet plan from AT&T that allows you to keep a land line phone is through their high-speed DSL, which is a distinct system from U*verse, and doesn’t happen to be available in our neighborhood.

    > you didn’t like the comcast price

    Which is the same as the AT&T price, assuming AT&T would actually sell me the service. I pay more per kbps / month than I did a few years ago for a service that is at least an order of magnitude less reliable.

    > Have you tried DSLExtreme?

    DSL is not available in my neighborhood, except to one house which would be capped at 768 kbps. Oh, and “competitors” like DSLExtreme exist only because of government regulation requiring the regional monopolies to keep their networks open.

    > Why do you expect to pay $14.99 for service that is 100x faster than what you had while your phone bill goes down because you don’t use it as much?

    I’m very confused by this question. My connection speed has not increased even 10x, let along 100x. My network availability has dropped precipitously. My price has tripled.

    I also don’t understand why you think I pay less for my phone bill than I used to. We use the phone the same amount we always have. Meanwhile, the base residential rate on phone lines in California has increased by 60% in two years, and one line item fee has increased 500%.

    Nationwide, speed, and reliability may–on average–be improving, but there are plenty of counterexamples. And prices are only climbing. There is still not significant competition in most areas. If this shift to the cloud succeeds, its going to leave a lot of people behind.


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