Google’s Infuriating Move
Google recently edged towards a reversal of its longstanding position on the topic of Net Neutrality, sparking new debate on the power and reach of the world’s largest data center.
From the beginning, Google has stated that their corporate motto is “don’t be evil”. However, their recent activities have shown a tendency toward– if not outright evil, then at least a monumental greed. As revenue from their primary business (the selling of online ads) has taken a significant dip, Google has been forced to rethink their strategy, sometimes with startling consequences.
Net neutrality, the topic of the newest debate, is the idea of the Web as a free, open and democratized space that isn’t controlled by any one party, access to which is held to be the same standard regardless of the type of communication one is involved in. If you pay for Web access, or have Web access on your mobile device, you are allowed to do whatever you want with that connection. Net Neutrality essentially means you will not be discriminated against by how you use the Web. Your carrier cannot limit your traffic, nor can they decide what you can and cannot see.
Pros and cons
On one hand, this has allowed the proliferation of pirated films and software (it’s claimed that an estimated 50-75 percent of internet traffic involves pirated content). On the other hand, this has contributed to the Web’s fundamental equality and the ready availability of any and all content (China’s Great Firewall notwithstanding). At no time in history has such an open forum existed. The availability of pervasive, anonymous and (mostly) global access has permitted a free exchange of ideas and information that has toppled governments, defeated scams, instructed millions, and permitted artists, authors and businesses to communicate directly to their audience.
One must remember that, in all of this, Google has made a significant profit by connecting customers with 3.25 billion unique ads per month (representing 99% of their revenue) that are relevant to their interests. This ability–which they do better than anyone– crosses all boundaries, all nations, and all languages. All it needs is data. And with hundreds of petabytes tucked away in data centers around the world, Google possesses more data than any agency on earth.
A brief history of control
In 2006, Google created the Open Handset Alliance, in which they clearly indicated their desire to create an open, shared platform that would benefit the many cellphone producers that made up the alliance– including HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola, and others. At the time, many expressed worries that this “openness” would ultimately prove short-lived, and in May of this year, MocoNews even quoted a former executive at an OHA member company as saying the organization was “oligarchical”, and that ”the power is concentrated with the Google employees who manage [Android].” That such a telling remark was not widely reported is surprising– is no one following the Open Handset Alliance? (It does appear that a small number of sites, at least, are concerned with such things).
As soon as the OHA introduced their smartphone operating system, Android, in 2007, Google completely took over the project. With the increase in control, Google’s sense of “open source”, “privacy” and “freedom” all dramatically changed. Every member of the OHA has their own, custom-built Android interface– meaning that none of them have any reason to contribute back to the Alliance. And with Google essentially running the show (keeping major parts of Android close to the vest and refusing to let even high-profile developers use or reproduce them) the idea of an “open”, “free” operating system went out of the window.
Some food for thought: this hilarious PDF introducing Android claims “anyone will be able to build a system image” (except this guy), “users choose what gets installed” (unless it’s this), and components can be “extended” (except for these).
Fast forward to 2010 (Android adoption numbers are below, as of August). Google, at this point, has a smartphone operating system growing at breakneck speed, owns YouTube, and has business dealings with nearly every website on the planet. They decide to draft a document outlining their new “vision” of Net Neutrality– with Verizon, the US carrier famous for demanding that all their phones must use a single, ugly interface, hiding or disabling any features that set the phones apart from each other (and famously passed on the iPhone due to, among other things, not being able to provide their stellar customer service to iPhone users).
Google then reverses a decade of being “Net Neutral”, and claim that that “the wireless world is a very different place” than the wired one, and that restrictions on the type of content one is viewing should therefore be mandated. AT&T loves the idea, saying “it’s good for the industry”.
Josh Silver at the Huffington Post writes that,
Since its beginnings, the Net was a level playing field that allowed all content to move at the same speed, whether it’s ABC News or your uncle’s video blog. That’s all about to change, and the result couldn’t be more bleak for the future of the Internet.
On the surface, the proposal itself doesn’t seem that scary. So why do bloggers call it “the proposal to end the Internet as we know it”? First, it outlines the new, surreal idea that the Web, if wireless, can and should be treated entirely differently than if it was accessed over a cable. Subscribers can and should be censored. Content should be banned. Freedom of speech should be regulated, if companies desire. Programs that an ISP decides are worthwhile should get dedicated “high-speed” lines, while programs made by their competitors should move at the speed of an anesthetized slug.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation writes that ”[the agreement] carves out exemptions from neutrality requirements for so-called “unlawful” content, for wireless services, and for very vaguely-defined “additional online services. Wired goes a step further, calling Google a “carrier-humping surrender monkey”.
[This is] fancy language for: Verizon and the nation’s telecoms have yet again won, Google officially became a net neutrality surrender monkey, and you — as an American — have lost.
Here’s a thought: Comcast, an internet service provider, merged with NBC Universal, a content network. Under these new guidelines, Comcast can disable or significantly limit anything streaming through Netflix– forcing their “customers” to subscribe, instead, to their NBCU system, and giving up their now-useless Netflix service. And that’s definitely “free”, “open” and “innovative”, right?
Watch Out – It’s the RIAA!
What’s more, the main supporter of the document happens to be the RIAA– one of the most visibly deranged organizations in the history of media. Responsible for illegally suing a grandmother over her extensive pirated music collection (despite her not owning a computer) and other exciting and cost-effective defenses of artists’ royalties (including the disabled single mother who allegedly loves gangster rap, but doesn’t have any), the RIAA is possibly the last organization you want emphatically supporting your shiny new policy document. Though I’d love Limewire to pay ME one-point-five TRILLION dollars, or the entire GDP of Brazil (check out Recording Industry v. People for more).
So what will happen? Well, fortunately, even the FCC commissioner hates it, saying “it is time to guarantee an open internet now and forever, and put the interests of consumers in front of giant corporations.” For the moment, it seems that there is enough ill will towards the proposal (thanks in large part to bloggers!) to guarantee it will be altered in some significant sense.
But these events should not be seen as a one-off event: as media companies grab more and more territory — moving into cellular networks, cable TV, and even internet service– this behavior will only become more common.
I’m not hating on Google– at least, not exclusively. They have created an amazing amount of cool technology, an impeccable income stream for their 3.25 billion ads per month, and continue to drive innovation across the Web by building bigger networks than anyone could have possibly dreamed of 10, 20 or 50 years ago.
I’m also still holding out hope for Android– despite the decision not to cover it on this site.
But this “don’t be evil” mantra? As Steve Jobs said, “that’s bullshit”.