Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web

15 Dic Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web

Wall Street Journal, By VISHESH KUMAR and CHRISTOPHER RHOADS, December 15, 2008
 
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. 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. But phone and cable companies argue that Internet content providers should share in their network costs, particularly with Internet traffic growing by more than 50% annually, according to estimates. Carriers say that to keep up with surging traffic, driven mainly by the proliferation of online video, they need to boost revenue to upgrade their networks. Charging companies for fast lanes is one option. One major cable operator in talks with Google says it has been reluctant so far to strike a deal because of concern it might violate Federal Communications Commission guidelines on network neutrality. “If we did this, Washington would be on fire,” says one executive at the cable company who is familiar with the talks, referring to the likely reaction of regulators and lawmakers. Separately, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. have withdrawn quietly from a coalition formed two years ago to protect network neutrality. Each company has forged partnerships with the phone and cable companies. In addition, prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject. The contentious issue has wide ramifications for the Internet as a platform for new businesses. If companies like Google succeed in negotiating preferential treatment, the Internet could become a place where wealthy companies get faster and easier access to the Web than less affluent ones, according to advocates of network neutrality. That could choke off competition, they say. For computer users, it could mean that Web sites by companies not able to strike fast-lane deals will respond more slowly than those by companies able to pay. In the worst-case scenario, the Internet could become a medium where large companies, such as Comcast Corp. in cable television, would control both distribution and content — and much of what users can access, according to neutrality advocates. The developments could test Mr. Obama’s professed commitment to network neutrality. “The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history, and we have to keep it that way,” he told Google employees a year ago at the company’s Mountain View, Calif., campus. “I will take a back seat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality.” But Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law professor atStanford University and an influential proponent of network neutrality, recently shifted gears by saying at a conference that content providers should be able to pay for faster service. Mr. Lessig, who has known President-elect Barack Obama since their days teaching law at the University of Chicago, has been mentioned as a candidate to head the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the telecommunications industry. The shifting positions concern some purists. “What they’re talking about is selling you the right to skip ahead in the line,” says Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a Washington-based advocacy group. “It would mean the first part of your business plan would be a deal with AT&T to get into their super-tier — that is anathema to a culture of innovation.” Advocates of network neutrality believe it has helped the Internet drive the technology revolution of the past two decades, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.