Net Neutrality & the White Hot Spotlight of Public Attention

by on December 15, 2008 · 43 comments

Over just the past 24 hours, there’s been quite a hullabaloo surrounding the Wall Street Journal’s controversial front-page story on Google’s edge caching plan and whether it violates Net neutrality. (See Cord’s post and Bret’s). Lessig calls it a “made-up drama“, David Isenberg says it’s “bogus” and “bullshit,” and Google’s Rick Whitt has said it’s much ado about nothing.

Regardless, here’s the important thing not to overlook about this episode: It is a prime example of the what Tim Lee has referred to as “the fundamental problem of backlash” that ensues whenever there is even a hint of a potential violation of network neutrality (however one defines it). As Tim argued in his excellent Cato paper on Net neutrality, “No widespread manipulation would go unnoticed for very long,” and a “firestorm of controversy would… be unleashed if a major network owner embarked on a systematic campaign of censorship on its network.” (p. 23). Indeed, this (non-)story about Google’s edge-caching plans have spawned an intense “firestorm of controversy” over the past 24 hours and it doesn’t even involve serious network meddling or censorship! I’ve been trying to keep up with all the traffic about this on TechMeme and Google News during that time, but I have given up trying to digest it all. (Take a look at those snapshots I pasted down below to get a feel for the volume we are talking about here).

In that regard, I love this quote from the always-bloodthirsty Tim Karr of the (inappropriately-named) regulatory activist group Free Press:

If Google or any other tech company were secretly violating Net Neutrality, there would be an absolute and cataclysmic backlash from the grassroots and netroots who have made Net Neutrality a signature issue in 21st Century politics. The Internet community would come crashing down on their heads like Minutemen on Benedict Arnold.

Indeed, that’s exactly what we saw today. But it wasn’t just pro-regulatory fanatics like Free Press. The entire tech and business blogoshere and even some of the mainstream media were on top of this. That’s the “fundamental problem of backlash” at work, and with a vengeance.

TechMeme Google headlines

Google headlines 2

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