Net Neutrality, Google, and Internet Ethics

This past summer, Verizon and Google unveiled a joint legal framework for the consideration of Internet policy makers that grants Internet Service Providers (ISPs) greater control over the way consumers can access content in the digital world. The proposal would give ISPs the ability to introduce tiered pricing schemes for multiple “Internets” of diminishing quality and content, similar to how cable television companies already charge higher prices for packages offering more channels and better resolution. In addition, ISPs could let companies purchase the right to host their content on faster streams, which would give well-known sites like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook an even greater advantage when it comes to attracting visitors and racking up revenue from advertisers.

All of this goes against the very concept of “net neutrality” that the overwhelming majority of Internet users support and wish to see remain in place.

Net neutrality is the idea that all online content should be treated indiscriminately. A neutral or open Internet is the only type we’ve had so far, where all websites—commercial or non-commercial, corporate or ad-free, established or up-and-coming—load at the same (relative) speed, and each user, after paying their ISP a flat fee, receives an all-access pass to digital content. An open Internet ensures a level playing field for online entrepreneurs and users alike.

President Obama voiced strong support for net neutrality back in 2007, and when he picked Julius Genachowski to head the Federal Communications Commission in 2009, the president indicated its preservation was a key priority. Even so, the FCC hasn’t set any rules on net neutrality. On September 1 of this year, the FCC issued a request for input from the public on regulating wireless networks and other problematic elements of the Google-Verizon proposal, but critics say it’s time to act. In late September House Democrats tried and failed to introduce a net neutrality bill that reportedly didn’t give the FCC power to impose rules to preserve an open Internet.

Among its many drawbacks, a non-neutral Internet could likely spark a new kind of digital divide among users. The original digital divide refers to the gap between Internet haves and have-nots. Often there are socioeconomic reasons why certain people lack Internet access, but these can and are being addressed by both governmental and non-profit organizations. However, if the neutrality of the Internet is in question, even providing everyone with a laptop and free Wi-Fi still wouldn’t be enough to eliminate this gap in accessibility. There would still be some have-nots who couldn’t afford access to the “complete” version of the Internet or who couldn’t travel full-speed down the information superhighway.

For their part, Google and Verizon pay lip service to the advocates of an open Internet, stating in their proposal that they would not allow ISPs to favor different types of lawful content “in a manner that causes meaningful harm to competition or to users.” Hypothetically, this seems to prevent everything from prioritizing traffic to siphoning off portions of the web as premium content (though it does leave open the possibility of blocking access to illegal file sharing sites). This framework, however, also contains a massive loophole because these provisions don’t apply to wireless broadband networks or any new Internet services, such as 3D, that telecom companies might develop in the future.

It comes as no surprise that Verizon supports such a measure—as an ISP, it has long opposed net neutrality as another obstacle in the way of profits—but this was also drafted by Google, which up until now has voiced its support of a free and open Internet. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin owe a certain amount of loyalty to net neutrality; without it, it’s unlikely their start-up company would have risen from Internet obscurity to become the multi-billion dollar company it is today. They have said in the past that an unrestrictive Internet browsing experience is necessary in order for the next Google—the next new big idea—to take hold.

But now Google seems to be turning its back on its previous commitment to net neutrality. As Andrew Orlowski from the online tech publication the Register points out, a neutral Internet is no longer in the company’s best interest, which explains Google’s willingness to so quickly abandon their old values. He argues that Google has been disguising its own selfish motives from the beginning, trying to appear altruistic as a way of branding itself as a morally conscientious, progressive company.

Yet it’s not as if Google has gotten by without any criticism or accusations until now. In 2008 the company was under fire for “edge-caching,” that is, switching server locations to allow YouTube videos to load faster for specific target audiences. Others have previously called out Google for more or less complying with Chinese governmental policies of Internet censorship.

Another recent attack on Google comes from the Germans. Many are concerned that Google Map’s Street View feature—which provides high-quality panoramic images of private residential areas—is a violation of their privacy. Even Germans who support the project were nevertheless angered by the under-handed tactics Google used to avoid public critique. As reported by Der Spiegel, in an effort to draw as little attention as possible Google quietly announced its Street View project during the summer, when most politicians, along with many other German citizens, travel abroad on vacation.

This goes to show that Google, for all of its forward-thinking ideas and great work environment (Fortune ranks them fourth on their list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For”), is nevertheless a corporation doing what it can to get ahead. And while we can’t really expect a business to deny its self-interest or ignore its bottom line, is it still too unreasonable to ask Google to uphold its own “Don’t be evil” pledge and for the FCC to take some action in upholding net neutrality for the greater good?

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