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Net Neutrality's Chill on a Free Market Internet -- Google's OpenEdge Caching in Context

Calls for preemptive sweeping regulation can have a way of backfiring, impeding common sense, and discouraging sound market outcomes. Take Net neutrality.

  • Today's Wall Street Journal front page story "Google wants its own fast track on the web" reports on:
    • Google's secret "OpenEdge" request to ISPs to colocate Google servers on ISP premises in order to speed up Google's network and reduce Google's traffic burden on the Internet; and also
    • How the special request appears to signal waning support by Google of net neutrality legislation/regulation.  
  • Google immediately repudiated the WSJ article as "confused" and Mr. Whitt reassured net neutrality supporters in his blog post that:
    • "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."

First, let me publicly agree with Google's heretofore secret view, that their proposed caching of video can be a good thing and a natural free market response to a serious Internet congestion problem.

  • As Google said: "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)."
  • It is constructive when Google and others acknowledge that caching is in fact reasonable network management and an important smart network innovation.
  • Google's previous "dumb network" orthodoxy just didn't comport with how the Internet really works from an network engineering standpoint -- as ITIF's George Ou so brilliantly explains in his just-released report.

Second, let me praise Professor Lessig for changing his mind on the merits of prioritization of traffic and Internet tiering per the WSJ article:

  • "There are good reasons to be able to prioritize traffic," Mr. Lessig said later in an interview. "If everyone had to pay the same rates for postal service, than you wouldn't be able to differentiate between sending a greeting card to your grandma versus sending an overnight letter to your lawyer.
  • It would be constructive if Professor Lessig could use his considerable influence as the #1 personal charter Member of the Save the Internet coalition to get the net neutrality movement he helps lead -- to also strongly support the validity and necessity of reasonable network management and smart network innovation.  

Third, let me point out the source of the inconsistency of Google's net neutrality position that may have led to the front-page WSJ article. In Google's 6-16-07 post explaining what it believes net neutrality is and is not, an average person could easily be "confused" by their net neutrality hair-splitting.  

  • To Google's credit, Google said in "What kind of behavior is okay?" that "employing certain upgrades, such as the use of local caching or private network backbone links" was okay. 
  • The legitimate confusion is that in "What isn't okay?" Google said "building a new "fast lane" online that consigns Internet content and applications to a relatively slow, bandwidth starved portion of the bandwidth connection," is not okay.
    • By Google secretly proposing that ISPs put in caching servers to relatively speed up delivery of YouTube videos faster than others, its murky at best why this would not be a net neutrality problem under Google's conflicting guidance. 
    • Google probably would have gotten more of the benefit of the doubt in the WSJ article, had it been open and transparent in its attempt to benefit specially from smart network innovation and a free market Internet, and if the secret effort would have benefited Google's dwindling competitors as well. 
    • Moreover, the antitrust finding by the Department of Justice 11-5-08 that Google is a monopoly, and attempted to further extend its monopoly in Internet search advertising and syndication, would seem to further complicate secret arrangements that would appear to speed up the delivery of just Google's dominant application.   

Fourth, in a recent interview with the Guardian, Vint Cerf, the Internet's co-designer and a senior Google official, explained how the Internet's end-to-end design principle really works in practice:   

  • "It's every man for himself," he says, grinning. "In the end, it seems every machine has to defend itself. The internet was designed that way."  
  • It should be no surprise that Google has self-interest like any other entity does.

Bottom line:

A big problem with calls for preemptive, sweeping, and hard-to-define regulation like net neutrality is that it creates a big chilling effect on normal beneficial free market behavior. 

  • Net neutrality proponents' rhetoric has been emphatic that broadband is not competitive (when it is) and that the government must preemptively ban heretofore legitimate, legal, and beneficial free market behavior.
  • The net neutrality movement unfortunately has created a guilty-until-proven-innocent cloud of suspicion over reasonable network management practices and smart network innovation. 

It is truly unfortunate that legitimate and necessary free market Internet behavior like video caching, has fallen victim to the over-reaching chill of net neutrality. It serves no one. 

Q&A One Pager Debunking Net Neutrality Myths