More on Google and Neutrality: Is the Army Becoming Rag-Tag?

by on March 16, 2007

Over the past few days there’s been some lively blogosphere speculation going on regarding Google’s position on net neutrality. A few weeks ago, I noted that Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s top policy guy, had argued against an FCC role in net neutrality, saying that neutrality should be thought of as “an attorney general or FTC problem.” Earlier this week, TLF’s Drew Clark, writing on, made the case that an even more extensive re-think is going on in Mountain View. Clark pointed out that McLaughlin, in addition to distancing Google from the FCC, also opened the door a crack to charges for quality-of-service guarantees, saying “[t]here is a pragmatic view that it is OK as long as it is done in a non-discriminatory way.”

None of this means Google is about to join the free-market camp (though we’d love to have them). It does put a lot of distance, however, between them and their allies. According to Clark, this has caused “a fair bit of angst” within Google and among those allies.

Clark’s piece spurred an almost immediate rebuttal from Tim Karr of Free Press, one of the leading non-profit groups in the pro-regulation camp. Writing in the Huffington Post, Karr denied that Google was going wobbly. His evidence? Well, he asked them, and they denied it. “Google’s position on Net Neutrality has not changed one bit,” he quotes a Google spokesman as saying.

Well, that certainly settles the matter, doesn’t it? I mean, if Google was shifting its position, it would say so, wouldn’t it? One can just see the statement: “We regret any inconvenience but we now realize what we were saying last year was just plain wrong. Lord knows what we were thinking. Never mind.”

No, that rarely happens (not that it wouldn’t be refreshing). Instead, Google issued a classic of statement of support. The kind beleagured presidential appointees get from the White House just before they are sacked.

Karr did get Google to elaborate, with a written statement saying “broadband operators should not be able to charge any content providers extra fees,” and that they “continue to support neutrality legislation by Senators Dorgan and Snowe.”

This, however, directly contradicts what McLaughlin said. Snowe-Dorgan, for instance, taps the FCC with substantial new regulatory authority over neutrality – while McLaughlin said “[c]utting the FCC out of the picture would be a smart move.” And McLaughlin certainly didn’t slam the door shut on fees.

I could be wrong. Maybe McLaughlin spoke out of turn. Maybe he didn’t mean what he plainly said. (Although one has to wonder why the “clarification” didn’t come from him.”) But if I were Tim Karr – or anyone else on the pro-neutrality wagon – I’d be concerned. In fact, I’d rush out the next day with a piece denying that there was anything to be concerned about. The pro-regulation camp, remember has spent a lot of time nurturing the myth that its campaign has been a endless series of hard-fought successes (see, e.g.’s Telecom Slayers), creating a sense of inevitability about regulation. A Google split from the coalition would shatter that sense.

Of course, on the bright side, a Google walk could help further another myth. Regulation proponents have time and again asserted that theirs is a rag tag army of lonely activists fighting an uphill battle. Without Google, they still will be far from ragtag. But they will be a bit lonelier and their battle a bit more uphill.

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