Bennett Sings Telcos’ New Net Neutrality Tune

From the looks of it, the second round of the Net Neutrality debate is going to be a lot like the first: Lots of blather and not a lot of attention paid to facts, as warring factions try to tilt public perception in their favor. Surprising? Hardly, given the stakes of the game. Disappointing? Certainly, especially for those who were hoping that there could be more consensus-building discussions instead of the he-said/she-said arguing of the past, which hasn’t really served either side well.

Today’s editorial by Richard Bennett in the San Francisco Chronicle is a case in point: While Bennett, a self-proclaimed networking expert, makes valid points about the need for regulators to closely examine the market power of Google’s search advertising deals, his emotional one-offs on several items raise two red flags: Not only are some of them inaccurate, but their almost word-for-word mimicry of similar opinions voiced recently by the major telcos, AT&T and Verizon, shows there might be more to his argument than just the concerns of an average netizen.

In recent interviews for our upcoming Sidecut Report on Net Neutrality, I was reminded once again just how good the telcos are at playing the lobbying game by synchronizing their messaging. In separate interviews at the recent NXTcomm show, the top policy execs for both big telcos — AT&T’s Jim Cicconi and Verizon’s Tom Tauke — both stressed the ideas that A) the Net Neutrality debate was started by, and mostly run by, Google; and B) that privacy concerns, especially those related to online advertising, were a much bigger problem than net neutrality, which was already being solved anyway by business-to-business solutions. Clearly, I thought, these are the new marching orders for the telco side of the issue.

Both those ideas are embodied in Bennett’s essay, in which he accuses Google of a “political head-fake,” using net neutrality to distract regulators from the privacy concerns. I would posit that you could flip that coin on its head, and say that it’s the telcos who are raising a big stink about privacy in order to try to move net neutrality to a back burner. To me, they seem like two separate issues that should be resolved on their own merits. But neither am I naive! Welcome to Net Neutrality, Round Two.

While I still hope to interview Bennett for the upcoming report — it’s clear from his writing and public testimony that he knows more about networking than your average law professor — there are several points in his column that shouldn’t go unchallenged. The first is his claim that net neutrality is a topic that “Google thrust into the political spotlight two years ago.” The reality is that Google, if anything, was late to the game and supremely unorganized in its approach to net neutrality, not really getting its act together until it hired former MCI lobbyist Rick Whitt in early 2007. If anything, it was former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre’s not on my pipes bromide that made net neutrality a front-page topic, more so than anything Google did or said.

Bennett also says Google gets a free pass from the tech press, and that despite its “squeaky-clean” image, Google also has relations with “Washington power brokers,” perhaps an attempt to sketch Google as some nefarious broker of back-room deals. I’m not sure where Bennett is reading his so-called “cheerleading” for Google — most everything I can find in searches on the topic are straightforward, balanced news accounts, with plently of growing cynicism about Google and its endeavors in things like Street View. My pal Om has been anything but a Google cheerleader, like others questioning how Google will square its open networking ideals with the exclusive partner deals that were part of its $500 million investment in WiMax provider Clearwire.

On the D.C. influencer side, all I can say is it wasn’t Google who convinced Congress to change its mind and grant immunity to telcos in their FISA-related lawsuits. According to AT&T’s Cicconi, he oversees a staff of some 700 people. Google’s Whitt, on the other hand, is one of only three Google people “on the Hill,” and he is still the only one with a focus on the FCC. So who exactly is to be feared in Washington?

You could keep picking Bennett’s essay apart — claiming Google had “largely abandoned” net neutrality earlier this year is just laughable — but at some point you just get tired of the game, and wish there was a better way. Fortunately, many of the other players on both sides seem to be eager to work together to find solutions that don’t require political endgames; today’s surprise agreement between Vonage and Comcast to work together on networking concerns is just another signal that maybe there is a better place for the debate, centered around what is reasonable network management, and how it can be achieved so that both sides feel their concerns have been considered, and become part of the implementation. Other interviews we’ve done with folks like Public Knowledge and Comcast reflected such ideas.

Given Bennett’s past calls for more technical expertise and less political interference in debates about matters Internet, it’s surprising to read that he now thinks that regulators, and not market players, should intervene. But it is pretty clear who agrees almost exactly with everything he says today.

“The carriers try to frame this as being between themselves and Google — I’m a veteran of MCI so I saw this in the ’90s,” said Whitt in our recent interview. “They came after MCI as the poster child of the CLEC side, and unfortunately, they did a pretty good job.”

Will the same game work again? That will be one of the questions we ask in our upcoming report, which unfortunately has been slowed a bit by my recent surgery. If you want an email update when it’s ready, drop me a line at kaps at sidecutreports.com and I will ping you when it’s done.

3 Responses to “Bennett Sings Telcos’ New Net Neutrality Tune”

  1. Richard Bennett Says:

    I’d be glad to talk to you about Google, net neutrality, and related topics, but let me endeavor to correct a few factual errors in your post. Google jumped on the net neutrality bandwagon as soon as there was one to jump onto, because Ed Whiteacre called them out by name in the Business Week “they ain’t using my pipes for free” piece. Google was quick to point out that they pay for the bandwidth that ties their private network of server farms together, and for its connection to the public Internet. You don’t need a Washington office to do that, the normal corporate communications function handled it just fine. In the legislative year that followed, Google formed It Our Net and sent people to testify at hearings on the Hill.

    Eric Schmidt addressed the Economist Club in Washington DC the first week of June, where he was introduced by long-time friend Vernon Jordan, Bill Clinton’s golfing buddy and king of the DC power brokers.

    The elements of the tech press that have engaged in Google cheerleading include Cnet, Techdirt, The Register, and many others. Google announced its anti-neutrality detector the day the Yahoo deal was annonced, and there was more coverage of the vaporware detection tools than of the Yahoo deal. One reporter, Cade Metz, actually attributed Google’s neutrality stance to “idealism” when it has clearly been corporate self-interest.

    Google was absent from the FCC hearings on Comcast, and had very little to say about any of that phase of the NN debate. “Internet for Everyone” is an attempt to push NN into a third phase, but it’s all empty rhetoric and no program.

    Finally, my concern about the Google-Yahoo deal has less to do with privacy than with monopoly power to set prices. Google is guilty of all the things it’s accused the telcos of doing, and it’s my belief that they should be held to the same standard.

    Rather than engage in all this ad hominem speculation, why not address the issues in an honest and factual way? That’s what I try to do, perhaps not always successfully, but that’s another story.

  2. Paul Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Richard. I guess in your view “jumping on the bandwagon” equates to leading the charge, but I will continue to disagree that net neutrality is something engineered specifically by Google. (If you measure the times Google testified before Congress vs. appearances by telco spokespeople, official or otherwise, I think you would still find Google on the short end.) Has Google taken advantage of the movement? Without a doubt. But addressing the issue in an honest and factual way, you can’t simply say (as you did) that Google thrust it into the political spotlight, because that’s simply not true. Jumping on the bandwagon, in my definition, is a long way from leading it.

    And I also guess that your BS detector is set to extra-fine when it comes to any unworthy praise of Google; my only point was to perhaps suggest that some cheerleading does not mean that all are cheerleaders, as your essay suggests. I actually think there is a lot more balanced coverage and opinion on these topics than two years ago. Even among the sources you list, there is diversity; I doubt you would ever call C/Net’s Declan McCullagh a Google cheerleader, for instance.

    As for why Google was silent on net neutrality recently — not to speak for them, but they were in fact encumbered by the rules of the 700 MHz auctions, which forbid participants from publicly speaking about the proceedings. At the Silicon Flatirons conference in February I asked Whitt several questions (including one about net neutrality) that he simply wouldn’t answer, since he didn’t want to run afoul of the rules of the auction.

    As far as addressing things in a factual way instead of (as you suggested), with prejudice, I couldn’t agree more. As I said in the post, I couldn’t imagine a report on net neutrality without your input, so I look forward to meeting soon, and being able to hear your thoughts and visions at length, instead of via the truncated communications of blog posts and comments.

  3. Richard Bennett Says:

    Google formed “It’s Our Net” in July, 2006. As far as I know, this was the first organization solely focused on passing a net neutrality law. That organization has now morphed into Open Internet Coalition, Save the Internet, and Internet for Everyone, all except STI directly supported by Google money (STI is actually a Free Press front group, but they admit to coordinating closely with Google.)

    If an issue falls in a forest and nobody pays for it, does Congress pass a law?

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