Is Google flipping its stance on network neutrality? The New York Times reports that Google and Verizon, two of the biggest players in the internet world, are nearing an agreement under which Verizon would provide faster service for certain types of traffic to customers willing to pay for such a privilege. Such a change would be a significant turnaround for Google, who has always championed the cause of net neutrality. This would also be another significant blow to net neutrality advocates who have recently seen the FCC’s attempts to enforce that principle struck down by the courts.
The term ”network neutrality” (or net neutrality) describes a concept under which every participant in the patchwork of systems that makes up the internet treats all types of data equally regardless of the data’s source or destination. Until relatively recently, that concept was uncontroversial. Now, however, as internet service providers are seeking new sources of revenue and increased control over their networks, this utopian principle has increasingly come under attack.
In 2007, Comcast became the first service to edge away from strict compliance when it began slowing traffic for peer-to-peer file sharers. Comcast argued that, because this small subset of users consumed an disproportionate amount of bandwidth, their actions were justified as a method of preserving resources for the 90%+ of users who do not use file sharing applications. The FCC objected and reprimanded Comcast for its violation of network neutrality. Comcast argued that there was no formal rule regarding neutrality, only a guideline. In response, the FCC formally proposed a set of net-neutrality rules last year. Whether those rules were a good idea or a bad idea depended on one’s viewpoint. Significantly, Google has consistently been a voice in favor of net neutrality and an open internet. Regardless, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in April of this year that the FCC did not have the power to regulate the internet at all.
Details regarding what services could be affected have not been disclosed, but, for example, YouTube (a subsidiary of Google) could pay Verizon to give its content priority over competing companies like Netflix – in effect providing YouTube with a comprehensive advantage with Verizon’s nearly 200 million wireless and internet customers. Alternatively, Verizon customers might be given the opportunity to pay for priority access to Google’s offerings. Google’s participation can be viewed as either a shocking course-reversal for the company or simply a pragmatic response to the changing rules of the internet. Either way, this is the sort of agreement that internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon have sought for the past several years and may cause serious damage to the FCC’s continued efforts to enforce network neutrality.