Sunday, December 14, 2008

Is Google Really Ditching Net Neutrality?

Google has always been a public proponent of the concept of net neutrality. Thus, a story on the Wall Street Journal's website, destined for the Monday edition, caught my eye. Titled "Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web," it states that Google is looking to make deals with broadband providers to get faster access for its own content. At the same time, Google responded with a blog post attempting to clarify the matter.

According to Google, what it wants to do is edge caching.
Edge caching is the ability to distribute content from a local Web server to caching servers that are closer to the end user--nearer the "edge".
Google calls its version of this "OpenEdge."
Google has offered to "colocate" caching servers within broadband providers' own facilities; this reduces the provider's bandwidth costs since the same video wouldn't have to be transmitted multiple times. We've always said that broadband providers can engage in activities like colocation and caching, so long as they do so on a non-discriminatory basis.

All of Google's colocation agreements with ISPs -- which we've done through projects called OpenEdge and Google Global Cache -- are non-exclusive, meaning any other entity could employ similar arrangements. Also, none of them require (or encourage) that Google traffic be treated with higher priority than other traffic.
OK, that sounds a lot more innocent than what the WSJ says. The text of the WSJ article reads more like a direct blow against net neutraility; this sounds more akin to what Akamai already does.

The WSJ (emphasis mine):
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.

At risk is a principle known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same -- nobody is supposed to jump the line.
As I said, this reads more like a direct affront to net neutrality than the edge caching Google describes. The WSJ does, after several paragraphs describing the concept of net neutrality and quotes from some pundits, name Google's idea as the OpenEdge plan.

Given this, is there still something to worry about? You bet. The WSJ cites examples of a "softening" of the support around net neutrality. Others aren't so sure anything is changing, and that net neutrality is more of an ideal than a reality. As Richard Bennett of Broadband Politics says:

The Internet is not a network, it’s a complex set of agreements to interconnect independently owned and operated networks in various ways. There is no standard agreement, and this story doesn’t report on a new one. What it simply shows is that money buys performance in the technology space, and that should come as no surprise to anyone. Google has to do something like this to avoid being clobbered by ISP-friendly P4P as well as by Akamai.

Yes, Virginia, network neutrality is a myth, and it always has been.

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