Playing broken telephone over net neutrality

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google wanted service providers to give preference to their content, so that it would be transmitted to consumers faster. According to the WSJ:

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.

If true, this would signal an important shift in the net neutrality debate. Google has been one of the biggest proponents of network neutrality in a battle that pitted new media against old media. Back in 2006, Microsoft and Google advocated that treating all network traffic indiscriminately was essential to preserve the open nature of the Internet. On the other side were phone companies such as AT&T and cable companies such as Comcast. Their argument is that they need to be able to charge users for different kinds of content, in order to raise revenue for further upgrades. If Google switched its position, the balance of power will have shifted in a debate that has prompted enormous lobbying of the U.S. government.

But the key words in that last paragraph are “if true”. It isn’t.

On Google’s public policy blog, they explained that the WSJ misinterpreted Google’s strategy of caching content with ISPs:

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. … I want to be perfectly clear about one thing: Google remains strongly committed to the principle of net neutrality, and we will continue to work with policymakers in the years ahead to keep the Internet free and open.

Not only does caching have no effect on net neutrality, but Wired disputed the Wall Street Journal article on five different claims. One of those inaccuracies was a claim that Lawrence Lessig had also softened his support for network neutrality, which he quickly disputed on his own blog. Even the claim that the U.S. President elect had softened on network neutrality is on shaky ground. While the article from the Wall Street Journal stirred up a lot of shock and debate, it turned out to be much ado about nothing. Many of the article’s claims could have been quickly verified, and apparently weren’t.

Still, it would not be a surprise to see elements of the net neutrality coalition fragment and disagree. Although one side of the debate shares a common commitment to an open Internet, there are many different ways to achieve this. Even in the CRTC’s recent ruling, it is unclear if net neutrality necessitates an absolute restriction on traffic shaping, or just careful management so that it does not discriminate between wholesale and retail customers. Either way, whatever happens in the U.S. will have a huge influence on Canada and the rest of the world. As U.S. lawmakers respond to pressure, we will see if Canada follows suit.