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.