Google Endorses Speed-based Prioritization – What About Net Neutrality?

by on June 19, 2008 · 24 comments

Google has begun including the “load time factor” into the quality score for ads on its AdWords program.  This means that “Keywords with landing pages that load slowly may get lower Quality Scores (and thus higher minimum bids).  Conversely, keywords with landing pages that load very quickly may get higher Quality Scores and lower minimum bids.”

Google provides two reasons for the change:  “First, users have the best experience when they don’t have to wait a long time for landing pages to load.  Interstitial pages, multiple redirects, excessively slow servers, and other things that can increase load times only keep users from getting what they want: information about your business.  Second, users are more likely to abandon landing pages that load slowly, which can hurt your conversion rate [and thus lower profits for both the advertiser].”

One could easily imagine that some might complain that Google is “discriminating” against slower-to-load pages, and even hypothesize that this would introduce a systemic bias towards sites that can afford faster server throughput.  True, this change makes the AdWords system non-”neutral” in ways that will benefit some advertisers over others.

But so what?  Google is simply engaging in smart management of their network:  Giving priority to ads that load faster introduces a strong incentive for all advertisers to speed up their pages in any manner possible.  This small change in pricing structure could have broader effects on the efficiency of Internet browsing for all users–at least in terms of building home pages that load faster–particularly if other advertising platforms follow suit.  Google explains that this change is merely an application of one of the “Ten things Google has found to be true”:

3. Fast is better than slow.

Google believes in instant gratification.  You want answers and you want them right now. Who are we to argue? Google may be the only company in the world whose stated goal is to have users leave its website as quickly as possible.  By fanatically obsessing on shaving every excess bit and byte from our pages and increasing the efficiency of our serving environment, Google has broken its own speed records time and again.  Others assumed large servers were the fastest way to handle massive amounts of data.  Google found networked PCs to be faster.  Where others accepted apparent speed limits imposed by search algorithms, Google wrote new algorithms that proved there were no limits.  And Google continues to work on making it all go even faster.

Amen!  Who could possibly disagree?

But if Google’s prioritization of its AdSense network is a good thing, should we not encourage other network operators to look for analogous ways to increase the operational efficiency of their networks through prioritization?  For example, how else could Gogo ensure the functionality of soon-to-be launched in-flight wireless boadband service if it could not prioritize low-bandwidth activities like Web surfing and email over high-bandwidth activities like streaming video?   As the DOJ noted in its September 2007 filing opposing the adoption of “net neutrality” mandates by the FCC, “The prioritization of certain content and content providers (such as streaming video and other latency-sensitive content), offering of premium services and different levels of quality of service, preferential treatment of certain content, and vertical integration–in many instances actually may be procompetitive.”

Of course, one might respond that Google’s form of prioritization is “good” and that other forms of prioritization are “bad.”  But what about Gogo’s?  Indeed, by what measure should such assessments be made and who is to make them?

Ultimately, the best answer is that consumers should have the freedom to choose among networks and services at the various layers of the Internet.  The key to such competition is, of course, transparency:  making it clear to users how traffic or services are being prioritized and why.  As I’ve discussed, Google’s recent announcement that it will offer users free tools to monitor ISP traffic management is both a means of increasing that transparency and a recognition that increased transparency will allow users and watchdogs to ensure that the “right” kind of prioritization is taking place while also facilitating the enforcement of user terms of use.

In this respect, Google is leading by example:  Google has explained very clearly what they’re doing and why, starting with their initial announcement in May that landing page load time would soon be incorporated into AdWords Quality Scores and their subsequent announcement that Google’s Keyword Analysis tools would allow each advertiser to monitor Google’s calculation of its landing page load time.  The adoption of such transparency as an industry best practice for explaining prioritization combined with the availability of user monitoring tools like those being developed by Google would provide a powerful alternative to government “Net Neutrality” mandates–without depriving users of the freedom to choose prioritization.

  • Tim Lee

    Berin, this strikes me as a rather loose analogy. While we talk about Adsense as an “ad network,” it’s not a network in the strict computer science sense of the term—i.e. it doesn’t route other companies’ packets. The argument for network neutrality is an argument about the Internet’s TCP/IP architecture, not an argument that “discrimination” in general is bad.

    With regard to Gogo, I don’t see how consumers benefit from having Gogo pick and choose which application receives priority treatment. It seems to me that consumers would benefit more from protocol-neutral traffic shaping that simply ensured that every customer got a roughly equal share of the bandwidth. Cusotmers who ran a lot of high-bandwidth applications would see their low-bandwidth applications slow to a crawl, while cusotmers who ran only low-bandwidth applications would have them work fine. Application-specific traffic shaping seems likely to be both paternalistic (because the customer might have different priorities than the ISP) and ineffective (because if it became widespread people would simply start camouflaging their disfavored traffic as favored traffic).

  • http://micahtillman.com Micah Tillman

    I suppose the question is: If the whole thing is kept as a roughly “survival of the fittest” arena, will Google’s framing of “fit” as “fast” itself be fit enough to survive?

    And that, I suppose, depends on how many competitors Google has in the arena who are offering alternative interpretations of what it means to be “fit.”

  • http://www.tc.umn.edu/~leex1008 Tim Lee

    Berin, this strikes me as a rather loose analogy. While we talk about Adsense as an “ad network,” it’s not a network in the strict computer science sense of the term—i.e. it doesn’t route other companies’ packets. The argument for network neutrality is an argument about the Internet’s TCP/IP architecture, not an argument that “discrimination” in general is bad.

    With regard to Gogo, I don’t see how consumers benefit from having Gogo pick and choose which application receives priority treatment. It seems to me that consumers would benefit more from protocol-neutral traffic shaping that simply ensured that every customer got a roughly equal share of the bandwidth. Cusotmers who ran a lot of high-bandwidth applications would see their low-bandwidth applications slow to a crawl, while cusotmers who ran only low-bandwidth applications would have them work fine. Application-specific traffic shaping seems likely to be both paternalistic (because the customer might have different priorities than the ISP) and ineffective (because if it became widespread people would simply start camouflaging their disfavored traffic as favored traffic).

  • http://micahtillman.com Micah Tillman

    I suppose the question is: If the whole thing is kept as a roughly “survival of the fittest” arena, will Google’s framing of “fit” as “fast” itself be fit enough to survive?

    And that, I suppose, depends on how many competitors Google has in the arena who are offering alternative interpretations of what it means to be “fit.”

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2007/10/04/the-riaa-loses-but-doesnt-realize-it-or-boycotting-the-riaa-has-never-made-more-sense-or-been-easier/ enigma_foundry

    But if Google’s prioritization of its AdSense network is a good thing, should we not encourage other network operators to look for analogous ways to increase the operational efficiency of their networks through prioritization?

    No. Google’s prioritization does not violate the end-to-end principle, and doesn’t affect the workings of the internet infrastructure itself. Just because they have a contract that addresses the speed of a certain page does not mean that they interfere with the ability of anyone to read or access certain content. That’s why everyone is so concerned about net neutrality–it would become a means of censorship, as has already happened numerous times.

  • Adam Thierer

    Tim… You fail to appreciate how the debate over Net neutrality within the Beltway has moved far, far beyond that traditional definition. You are right about how the argument started, but not about where it currently stands or where it will end. Before long, any online operator who in anyway engages in any sort of preferential treatment or prioritization of anything will be accused of “discrimination” that should somehow be resolved through government regulation. It doesn’t matter what type of “network” or layer of the Net we are talking about.

    That which haunts one type of provider or technology today will haunt them all tomorrow.

  • Tim Lee

    Adam, with all due respect, most of the people I’ve seen muddy the water on this score are people trying to discredit the concept of network neutrality. Certainly we should be wary of the potential for regulatory mission creep. But I also think we should give our opponents credit where it’s due. Network neutrality is a fuzzy concept, but it’s not this fuzzy.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    But if Google’s prioritization of its AdSense network is a good thing, should we not encourage other network operators to look for analogous ways to increase the operational efficiency of their networks through prioritization?

    No. Google’s prioritization does not violate the end-to-end principle, and doesn’t affect the workings of the internet infrastructure itself. Just because they have a contract that addresses the speed of a certain page does not mean that they interfere with the ability of anyone to read or access certain content. That’s why everyone is so concerned about net neutrality–it would become a means of censorship, as has already happened numerous times.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Tim… You fail to appreciate how the debate over Net neutrality within the Beltway has moved far, far beyond that traditional definition. You are right about how the argument started, but not about where it currently stands or where it will end. Before long, any online operator who in anyway engages in any sort of preferential treatment or prioritization of anything will be accused of “discrimination” that should somehow be resolved through government regulation. It doesn’t matter what type of “network” or layer of the Net we are talking about.

    That which haunts one type of provider or technology today will haunt them all tomorrow.

  • http://www.tc.umn.edu/~leex1008 Tim Lee

    Adam, with all due respect, most of the people I’ve seen muddy the water on this score are people trying to discredit the concept of network neutrality. Certainly we should be wary of the potential for regulatory mission creep. But I also think we should give our opponents credit where it’s due. Network neutrality is a fuzzy concept, but it’s not this fuzzy.

  • Brooke

    Of course it’s this fuzzy Tim, and recently, I don’t think that it’s the people trying to discredit neutrality who are muddying the waters for the most part.

    Our opponents–at least the loudest, most effective ones in the public debate–are the people who are still bringing up the AT&T/Pearl Jam incident and the Verizon/NARAL thing as proof positive that that there’s a neutrality problem. I agree that Berin’s analogy is a bit on the tortured side (though not outlandish), but Adam is right that the debate has shifted quite considerably in the last year and tortured reasoning is all the rage.

    Network architecture is, unfortunately, of little consequence to someone like Art Brodsky, who can prattle on for 600 words about how AT&T censoring its own content is a step in the direction of the decline and fall of the Internet. There may be credit due to proponents of the end-to-end principle, yourself among them, but my interest in giving credit to neutrality as a political concept is nill.

  • Brooke

    Of course it’s this fuzzy Tim, and recently, I don’t think that it’s the people trying to discredit neutrality who are muddying the waters for the most part.

    Our opponents–at least the loudest, most effective ones in the public debate–are the people who are still bringing up the AT&T/Pearl Jam incident and the Verizon/NARAL thing as proof positive that that there’s a neutrality problem. I agree that Berin’s analogy is a bit on the tortured side (though not outlandish), but Adam is right that the debate has shifted quite considerably in the last year and tortured reasoning is all the rage.

    Network architecture is, unfortunately, of little consequence to someone like Art Brodsky, who can prattle on for 600 words about how AT&T censoring its own content is a step in the direction of the decline and fall of the Internet. There may be credit due to proponents of the end-to-end principle, yourself among them, but my interest in giving credit to neutrality as a political concept is nill.

  • http://blog.actonline.org Mark Blafkin

    Tim, I think you might want to rethink your argument for Gogo only using traffic shaping techniques that simply carve up the bandwidth into equal portions for every user. While seemingly ‘democratic,’ it would likely be an incredibly inefficient use of bandwidth. In fact, just read anything Google or NAF has ever written about spectrum, whitespace, and the need for unlicensed spectrum and you’ll get the idea.
    Unless you’re going to create an entire market system for trading spectrum from one passenger to another on flights, this would be an incredibly inefficient use of the spectrum.

  • http://blog.actonline.org Mark Blafkin

    Tim, I think you might want to rethink your argument for Gogo only using traffic shaping techniques that simply carve up the bandwidth into equal portions for every user. While seemingly ‘democratic,’ it would likely be an incredibly inefficient use of bandwidth. In fact, just read anything Google or NAF has ever written about spectrum, whitespace, and the need for unlicensed spectrum and you’ll get the idea.
    Unless you’re going to create an entire market system for trading spectrum from one passenger to another on flights, this would be an incredibly inefficient use of the spectrum.

  • Tim Lee

    Brooke, that’s a good point. There are certainly people muddying the waters on both sides. I don’t think that’s a reason to muddy them further, though. Tortured reasoning may be all the rage on the other side, but I don’t think that means we ought to contribute to it.

    Mark, there’s no reason per-user traffic shaping would degrade performance any more than per-application traffic shaping does. The router just needs to keep track of each user’s bandwidth usage over some reasonable period and then respond to congestion by dropping packets of the heaviest users first.

  • http://www.tc.umn.edu/~leex1008 Tim Lee

    Brooke, that’s a good point. There are certainly people muddying the waters on both sides. I don’t think that’s a reason to muddy them further, though. Tortured reasoning may be all the rage on the other side, but I don’t think that means we ought to contribute to it.

    Mark, there’s no reason per-user traffic shaping would degrade performance any more than per-application traffic shaping does. The router just needs to keep track of each user’s bandwidth usage over some reasonable period and then respond to congestion by dropping packets of the heaviest users first.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2007/10/04/the-riaa-loses-but-doesnt-realize-it-or-boycotting-the-riaa-has-never-made-more-sense-or-been-easier/ enigma_foundry

    Our opponents–at least the loudest, most effective ones in the public debate–are the people who are still bringing up the AT&T/Pearl Jam incident and the Verizon/NARAL thing as proof positive that that there’s a neutrality problem.

    Brooke: They way you say this, a casual reader might think the the Pearl Jam incident was a one off fluke. It was not, and it shows the goal of the corporate power infrastructure is to suppress dissent and legitmate political action.:

    http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2008/03/05/why-should-we-tolerate-just-a-little-repression/

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2007/10/04/the-riaa-loses-but-doesnt-realize-it-or-boycotting-the-riaa-has-never-made-more-sense-or-been-easier/ enigma_foundry

    Here’s a list of bands censored:

    http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2007/08/18/its-only-censorship-so-whats-the-problem/#more-180

    Alleged: Nightwatchman (Tom Morello) @ Bonnaroo 2007 (Nightwatchman message board)
    Did anyone else watch The Nightwatchman live stream from bonnaroo? Everytime Tom began to talk the audio would cut out. I’m assuming that it wasnt just me.
    Alleged: Lupe Fiasco @ Lollpalooza 2007 (Pearl Jam message board)
    I actually missed the Pearl Jam set, but I saw Lupe Fiasco’s performance earlier in the day. He has a song called “American Terrorist”, and while the song itself seemed to go by untouched… Lupe’s lead in to the song was. It went something along the lines of “Some of you might know him as George W. Bush… The President. I know him as George W. Bush ___________ (dead air)”. Having seen Lupe in concert before, I know that muted out section was a “American Terrorist”. He pretty much yells it into the mic before launching into the song.
    Alleged: Lily Allen @ Bonnaroo 2007 (Lollapalooza message boards)
    They were definately censoring what Lily Allen was saying in between songs. When there are technical problems, the picture will stop and sometimes the word playlist above the buttons on the video screen will change to buffering. During Lily Allen my picture would keep playing fine and the sound was gone. The sound while the Roots were talking in between songs just cut out for the first time.
    Alleged: Ozomatli (and everyone else!) @ Coachella 2007 (MicheBella on Rotten Tomatoes)
    In nearly every band I watched, there was a moment when said band spoke to the crowd. Suddenly, the sound disappeared. I just watched Ozomatli, a very political band, and at the end of a long segment of talking with no sound, the guy turned around and had a picture of George Bush on his back for a split second.
    Alleged: Tom Petty (and everyone else!) @ Bonnaroo 2006 (FunknJam Productions messageboard)
    A big WTF? to the people in charge of streaming this webcast!! At first I thought that maybe it was a glitch in the streaming or my computer behaving funny. But every so often, the audio would cut out. And it always cut out while there seemed to be some interesting lyrics going on. I didn’t fully realize that the webcast was being CENSORED FOR CONTENT until Tom Petty sang for the third time, and had censored for the third time, “Let’s get to the point, Let’s (dead air) and turn the radio on….” Like that song hasn’t been played on the radio to death?!??! I can’t help but think this all had something to do with…. “Hey Wakarusa Policeman…”
    Alleged: Buddy Guy @ Bonnaroo 2006 (webcast setlist)
    Talks about Hip Hop/sings about a Cow/Bull/Mule ( censored )

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Our opponents–at least the loudest, most effective ones in the public debate–are the people who are still bringing up the AT&T/Pearl Jam incident and the Verizon/NARAL thing as proof positive that that there’s a neutrality problem.

    Brooke: They way you say this, a casual reader might think the the Pearl Jam incident was a one off fluke. It was not, and it shows the goal of the corporate power infrastructure is to suppress dissent and legitmate political action.:

    http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2008/03/05/w

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Here’s a list of bands censored:

    http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/2007/08/18/i

    Alleged: Nightwatchman (Tom Morello) @ Bonnaroo 2007 (Nightwatchman message board)
    Did anyone else watch The Nightwatchman live stream from bonnaroo? Everytime Tom began to talk the audio would cut out. I’m assuming that it wasnt just me.
    Alleged: Lupe Fiasco @ Lollpalooza 2007 (Pearl Jam message board)
    I actually missed the Pearl Jam set, but I saw Lupe Fiasco’s performance earlier in the day. He has a song called “American Terrorist”, and while the song itself seemed to go by untouched… Lupe’s lead in to the song was. It went something along the lines of “Some of you might know him as George W. Bush… The President. I know him as George W. Bush ___________ (dead air)”. Having seen Lupe in concert before, I know that muted out section was a “American Terrorist”. He pretty much yells it into the mic before launching into the song.
    Alleged: Lily Allen @ Bonnaroo 2007 (Lollapalooza message boards)
    They were definately censoring what Lily Allen was saying in between songs. When there are technical problems, the picture will stop and sometimes the word playlist above the buttons on the video screen will change to buffering. During Lily Allen my picture would keep playing fine and the sound was gone. The sound while the Roots were talking in between songs just cut out for the first time.
    Alleged: Ozomatli (and everyone else!) @ Coachella 2007 (MicheBella on Rotten Tomatoes)
    In nearly every band I watched, there was a moment when said band spoke to the crowd. Suddenly, the sound disappeared. I just watched Ozomatli, a very political band, and at the end of a long segment of talking with no sound, the guy turned around and had a picture of George Bush on his back for a split second.
    Alleged: Tom Petty (and everyone else!) @ Bonnaroo 2006 (FunknJam Productions messageboard)
    A big WTF? to the people in charge of streaming this webcast!! At first I thought that maybe it was a glitch in the streaming or my computer behaving funny. But every so often, the audio would cut out. And it always cut out while there seemed to be some interesting lyrics going on. I didn’t fully realize that the webcast was being CENSORED FOR CONTENT until Tom Petty sang for the third time, and had censored for the third time, “Let’s get to the point, Let’s (dead air) and turn the radio on….” Like that song hasn’t been played on the radio to death?!??! I can’t help but think this all had something to do with…. “Hey Wakarusa Policeman…”
    Alleged: Buddy Guy @ Bonnaroo 2006 (webcast setlist)
    Talks about Hip Hop/sings about a Cow/Bull/Mule ( censored )

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