TPW 38: The Google Kerfuffle — Edge Caching & Net Neutrality

by on December 19, 2008 · 5 comments

In several of our previous podcasts (see episodes 34, 35,and 37), we’ve discussed what we’ve called the “Comcast Kerfuffle,” which was the controversy surrounding the steps Comcast took to manage BitTorrent traffic on its networks. Critics called it a violation of Net neutrality principles while Comcast and others called it sensible network management.

This week we saw a new kerfuffle of sorts develop over the revelation in a Monday front-page Wall Street Journal story that Google had approached major cable and phone companies and supposedly proposed to create a fast lane for its own content. What exactly is it that Google is proposing, and does it mean – as the Wall Street Journal and some others have suggested – that Google is somehow going back on their support for Net neutrality principles and regulation? More importantly, what does it all mean for the future of the Internet, network management, and consumers. That’s what we discussed on the TLF’s latest “Tech Policy Weekly” podcast.

Today’s 30-minute discussion featured two of our regular contributors at the TLF, who both wrote about this issue multiple times this week. Cord Blomquist of the Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote about the issue here and here, and Bret Swanson of the Progress & Freedom Foundation wrote about it here and here.  To help us wade through some of the more technical networking issues in play, we were also joined on the podcast by Richard Bennett, a computer scientist and network engineer guru who blogs at Broadband Politics as well as Circle ID and he also pens occasional columns for The Register.  Also appearing on the show was Adam Marcus, Research Fellow & Senior Technologist at PFF, who wrote a “nuts and bolts” essay full of excellent technical background on edge caching and net neutrality.

You can download the MP3 file here, or use the online player below to start listening to the show right now.

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  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    My wrap-up was pretty lame.

    The takeaway from the Google Kerfuffle is that many of us who thought we opposed net neutrality have apparently supported it all along. Just as the bailouts made us all socialists, this clarification of Google's and Lessig's position on net neutrality makes us all neutralists. From now on, we can all get along.

    Seriously, if net neutrality is simply a ban on exclusive deals, that's a lot harder to oppose than the ban on wholesale service tiering was. Unfortunately, the Free Press/Save the Internet crowd failed to get the memo until now. I doubt their demands will change, so a crack has opened up among the NN movement just in time for the Congressional debate.

  • http://www.brettglass.com/FCC/remarks.html Brett Glass

    Adam, that podcast was very instructive; please let me know if you'd like an actual broadband provider's input on future ones. In any event, it is clear that Google is starting to engage in behavior that ought to rile “network neutrality” advocates — at least those that are not shills for Google.

    Network neutrality advocates — especially the most extreme ones, such as Free Press — claim that ISPs, who are primarily in the infrastructure business but sometimes provide content and services, will use their infrastructure to privilege those content and services. But Google, which started in the content and services business, is now building out infrastructure which is exclusively devoted to delivering their content. (They say that others can deploy such infrastructure, but this is akin to saying that freedom of the press is available to anyone who can afford to own one.) So, Google — though it is coming from the opposite direction — winds up in the same place: as an infrastructure owner whose infrastructure can discriminate in favor of its own content. But there's a big difference: the claim that the carriers might discriminate is speculation and fearmongering, while Google has announced that it fully intends to discriminate.

    The result is that advocates of “network neutrality” now face three conundrums. The first is that “network neutrality” is such an ill defined bundle of issues — with so many bags hung on the side by various interest groups — that it is impossible to discuss it sensibly as one issue. To date, many people who have opposed sweeping and onerous “network neutrality” regulation — including myself — have stated that they would be willing to support a narrow definition that doesn’t include all of these “bags on the side.” (See my comments to the FCC at http://www.brettglass.com/FCC/remarks.html.) But this issue threatens to add yet another item to the bundle. Even for many supporters of “network neutrality,” it’s beginning to look a little too bulky.

    What’s more, some lobbyists, especially those who are strongly aligned with Google (e.g. Free Press and Public Knowledge), have sought to dismiss “edge caching” as unrelated, because the issue is inconvenient and adding it would threaten their alliance with Google. But deep down, they know that it is actually more relevant than many other things which they’ve already opted to add to the bundle.

    Finally, the advocates of “network neutrality” — in particular, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and Media Access Project — have always claimed to be populist but now find themselves to be very much, and very obviously, in bed with corporate interests. If they break with those interests, they will likely lose the generous financial support of the corporations, such as Google, which have driven the “network neutrality” agenda from the start. But if they don’t break with those interests, they will have so obviously sold out that they will forever have compromised their integrity and public images.

    For all of these reasons, I would assert that it is time to dump the term “net neutrality” entirely and start afresh for the new year, hammering out a workable broadband policy unburdened by the baggage of the past. Let's start by defining goals (such as greater broadband deployment, good quality of service, and allowing innovation both by ISPs and by content and service providers) and by addressing issues related to those goals individually. We should start with the issues on which most people agree — for example, that anticompetitive conduct should be prohibited — and act only on those issues where there is a reasonable consensus. To instead rush headlong into legislation that attempts to treat the issues as an inseparable bundle — such as last year’s Dorgan-Snowe or Markey bills — would be a very bad move and would be detrimental to the country.

  • http://www.brettglass.com/FCC/remarks.html Brett Glass

    Adam, that podcast was very instructive; please let me know if you'd like an actual broadband provider's input on future ones. In any event, it is clear that Google is starting to engage in behavior that ought to rile “network neutrality” advocates — at least those that are not shills for Google.

    Network neutrality advocates — especially the most extreme ones, such as Free Press — claim that ISPs, who are primarily in the infrastructure business but sometimes provide content and services, will use their infrastructure to privilege those content and services. But Google, which started in the content and services business, is now building out infrastructure which is exclusively devoted to delivering their content. (They say that others can deploy such infrastructure, but this is akin to saying that freedom of the press is available to anyone who can afford to own one.) So, Google — though it is coming from the opposite direction — winds up in the same place: as an infrastructure owner whose infrastructure can discriminate in favor of its own content. But there's a big difference: the claim that the carriers might discriminate is speculation and fearmongering, while Google has announced that it fully intends to discriminate.

    The result is that advocates of “network neutrality” now face three conundrums. The first is that “network neutrality” is such an ill defined bundle of issues — with so many bags hung on the side by various interest groups — that it is impossible to discuss it sensibly as one issue. To date, many people who have opposed sweeping and onerous “network neutrality” regulation — including myself — have stated that they would be willing to support a narrow definition that doesn’t include all of these “bags on the side.” (See my comments to the FCC at http://www.brettglass.com/FCC/remarks.html.) But this issue threatens to add yet another item to the bundle. Even for many supporters of “network neutrality,” it’s beginning to look a little too bulky.

    What’s more, some lobbyists, especially those who are strongly aligned with Google (e.g. Free Press and Public Knowledge), have sought to dismiss “edge caching” as unrelated, because the issue is inconvenient and adding it would threaten their alliance with Google. But deep down, they know that it is actually more relevant than many other things which they’ve already opted to add to the bundle.

    Finally, the advocates of “network neutrality” — in particular, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and Media Access Project — have always claimed to be populist but now find themselves to be very much, and very obviously, in bed with corporate interests. If they break with those interests, they will likely lose the generous financial support of the corporations, such as Google, which have driven the “network neutrality” agenda from the start. But if they don’t break with those interests, they will have so obviously sold out that they will forever have compromised their integrity and public images.

    For all of these reasons, I would assert that it is time to dump the term “net neutrality” entirely and start afresh for the new year, hammering out a workable broadband policy unburdened by the baggage of the past. Let's start by defining goals (such as greater broadband deployment, good quality of service, and allowing innovation both by ISPs and by content and service providers) and by addressing issues related to those goals individually. We should start with the issues on which most people agree — for example, that anticompetitive conduct should be prohibited — and act only on those issues where there is a reasonable consensus. To instead rush headlong into legislation that attempts to treat the issues as an inseparable bundle — such as last year’s Dorgan-Snowe or Markey bills — would be a very bad move and would be detrimental to the country.

  • http://www.brettglass.com/FCC/remarks.html Brett Glass

    Adam, that podcast was very instructive; please let me know if you'd like an actual broadband provider's input on future ones. In any event, it is clear that Google is starting to engage in behavior that ought to rile “network neutrality” advocates — at least those that are not shills for Google.

    Network neutrality advocates — especially the most extreme ones, such as Free Press — claim that ISPs, who are primarily in the infrastructure business but sometimes provide content and services, will use their infrastructure to privilege those content and services. But Google, which started in the content and services business, is now building out infrastructure which is exclusively devoted to delivering their content. (They say that others can deploy such infrastructure, but this is akin to saying that freedom of the press is available to anyone who can afford to own one.) So, Google — though it is coming from the opposite direction — winds up in the same place: as an infrastructure owner whose infrastructure can discriminate in favor of its own content. But there's a big difference: the claim that the carriers might discriminate is speculation and fearmongering, while Google has announced that it fully intends to discriminate.

    The result is that advocates of “network neutrality” now face three conundrums. The first is that “network neutrality” is such an ill defined bundle of issues — with so many bags hung on the side by various interest groups — that it is impossible to discuss it sensibly as one issue. To date, many people who have opposed sweeping and onerous “network neutrality” regulation — including myself — have stated that they would be willing to support a narrow definition that doesn’t include all of these “bags on the side.” (See my comments to the FCC at http://www.brettglass.com/FCC/remarks.html.) But this issue threatens to add yet another item to the bundle. Even for many supporters of “network neutrality,” it’s beginning to look a little too bulky.

    What’s more, some lobbyists, especially those who are strongly aligned with Google (e.g. Free Press and Public Knowledge), have sought to dismiss “edge caching” as unrelated, because the issue is inconvenient and adding it would threaten their alliance with Google. But deep down, they know that it is actually more relevant than many other things which they’ve already opted to add to the bundle.

    Finally, the advocates of “network neutrality” — in particular, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and Media Access Project — have always claimed to be populist but now find themselves to be very much, and very obviously, in bed with corporate interests. If they break with those interests, they will likely lose the generous financial support of the corporations, such as Google, which have driven the “network neutrality” agenda from the start. But if they don’t break with those interests, they will have so obviously sold out that they will forever have compromised their integrity and public images.

    For all of these reasons, I would assert that it is time to dump the term “net neutrality” entirely and start afresh for the new year, hammering out a workable broadband policy unburdened by the baggage of the past. Let's start by defining goals (such as greater broadband deployment, good quality of service, and allowing innovation both by ISPs and by content and service providers) and by addressing issues related to those goals individually. We should start with the issues on which most people agree — for example, that anticompetitive conduct should be prohibited — and act only on those issues where there is a reasonable consensus. To instead rush headlong into legislation that attempts to treat the issues as an inseparable bundle — such as last year’s Dorgan-Snowe or Markey bills — would be a very bad move and would be detrimental to the country.

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