Google has long reveled in its position as the Internet firm that could do no wrong by consumers. The 12-year-old company, which has strong ties to Ann Arbor, has long distanced itself from its competition not only through famously complex algorithms — which maximize web-browsing efficiency — but also by repeatedly safeguarding the free flow of information on the Web.
The uncluttered, clean appearance of Google is one of the many aspects that make it so universally loved. Google’s recent headline-grabbing squabbles with China over censorship appealed to the masses for altruistic reasons. This was one of the world’s most powerful brands foregoing profits in favor of taking a stand against the oppressive Chinese government. In April, Google even published statistics showing the number of requests made by national governments for removal of data from the Internet.
Given these actions, it’s no surprise to hear that Google was once among the staunchest of the Obama administration’s allies for net-neutrality. According to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, net-neutrality means all information on the Web is shared free and equally.
“Allowing broadband companies to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the internet such a success,” Google employee and Web pioneer Vincent Cerf told Congress, according to The Economist, prior to the April ruling by a federal court that the Federal Communications Commission — the FCC — had no right to regulate Internet service providers.
Everything changed on Aug. 9, when Google completely reversed course and abandoned net-neutrality, much to the chagrin of the administration and the FCC — as well as advocates for the freedom of information. Google CEO Eric Schmidt teamed with Verizon to suggest a plan for a tiered pricing system on the Web, essentially partitioning the Internet into fast and slow lanes depending on what each user is doing.
Congress has yet to reach a consensus on the issue, but if this plan comes to fruition, service providers will be able to decide what content will flow quickly and what will flow more slowly. Making the concept of net-neutrality a relic of the past.
“Google has taken a big step back in people’s eyes,” analyst Craig Moffett of the financial research firm Sanford C. Bernstein told Bloomberg on Aug. 12. “The company that’s supposed to not be evil is suddenly being characterized by the net neutrality crowd as the arch-villain.”
Schmidt supports the plan by saying the market has created the demand for a tiered system and that efficiency will lead to better results for everyone. Advocates point to the usual free-market talking points, like the idea that government involvement with the Web will lessen private investment and derail innovation. However, it was the government’s innovation that created the Web itself through the Department of Defense.
The Economist recently posed the question of whether or not companies such as Amazon, Facebook and yes, even Google, could have become what they are today under such a plan? Would open source systems — essentially allowing anyone to create anything — be able to thrive under a Web that is no longer open?
The future of the openness of the Internet has never been so bleak. The book is currently being written and net-neutrality advocates appear headed for tough times given the stunning shift by the company that has been named as the world’s most powerful brand four years running.
The potential for abuse of power by the service providers seems limitless. Advocates of Google and Verizon’s plan may point to the open market as a positive, but an open market is characterized by competition. The market being entirely dominated by AT&T, Verizon and Comcast is hardly a beacon of open competition. Furthermore, given Comcast’s pending acquisition of NBC Universal, a major provider of content, the stage is set perfectly for such abuse. These are all firms, and their primary goal is profit not altruism. Just read the wistful words of former Fed Chairman and free-market icon Alan Greenspan as the economy spun out of control in 2008:
“I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” said Greenspan as quoted by The Guardian in Oct. 2008.
Abandoning the concept of net-neutrality is a mistake for many reasons, not merely basic principles. Google is among the most powerful, trusted companies in the world. This 180-degree shift is disturbing and likely to actually mean something, as the laws that govern the Web are essentially being written as we speak. President Barack Obama made a career as an academic and he certainly represents the interests of the University and everyone involved in academia with his support of net-neutrality.
Google has close ties to Ann Arbor and the University. Its co-founder attended college here and many University graduates find work at Google, which has an office in Ann Arbor. The University trains the leaders and the best, often for jobs at Google, so it’s about time we stepped up and made a difference while the book is still being written.
Roger Sauerhaft is an LSA senior.