WSJ Claims Google Not Practicing Net Neutrality

Net neutrality continues to be a hot topic of debate and pundits are queuing up to guess whether President-elect Barack Obama will eventually advocate such legislation. Google has long-held the stance that net neutrality is a good thing and has been frequently outspoken on the issue. But an article in today's Wall Street Journal titled "Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web," indicates that Google is in fact seeking preferential treatment for its traffic, which goes against the very principles of net neutrality:

"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...

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."

It turns out that while there is a kernel of the truth to the story, it is potentially based on a misunderstanding and Google maintains that it is still a strong advocate of net neutrality. In a blog post today, Richard Whitt (Google's Washington Telecom and Media Counsel) responded to the Wall Street Journal story, by stating:

"Despite the hyperbolic tone and confused claims in Monday's Journal story, 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."

The potential misunderstanding has to do with edge caching, which Whitt explains as:

"Edge caching is a common practice used by ISPs and application and content providers in order to improve the end user experience. Companies like Akamai, Limelight, and Amazon's Cloudfront provide local caching services, and broadband providers typically utilize caching as part of what are known as content distribution networks (CDNs). Google and many other Internet companies also deploy servers of their own around the world."

Co-locating caching servers on a broadband provider's network utilizes less bandwidth as the content doesn't need to be transited as many times from server to server. Whitt claims that as long as co-location and caching is done in a "non-discriminatory" manner, it does not violate the principle of net neutrality. Whitt further states:

"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. In contrast, if broadband providers were to leverage their unilateral control over consumers' connections and offer colocation or caching services in an anti-competitive fashion, that would threaten the open Internet and the innovation it enables."

If you take Whitt at face value, it would seem then that the Wall Street Journal misunderstood the nature of Google's co-location and caching agreements. On the other hand, while Google's traffic might not be treated with a higher priority than traffic from other sources, there is no denying that Google's traffic will deliver faster to users who access Google content that is cached on an ISP's network. Any content provider who co-locates or caches their content with an ISP will see a potential speed improvement in their content delivery to users. This puts more pressure on content providers to co-locate and cache their content with ISPs in order to compete; any content provider who doesn't follow suit or who can't afford to do this (such as smaller companies or startups), might end up seeing less traffic. The question is: Are co-location and caching fair competitive business practices, or do they fundamentally alter the online landscape enough to make the Internet no longer "neutral?" Let us know what you think about this issue in the comments section below.