Google's switch on neutrality shocks, disillusions its friends

Claire Cain Miller and Miguel Helft / New York Times News Service /

Published Aug 16, 2010 at 05:00AM

SAN FRANCISCO — On Friday at lunchtime, as Google employees dined al fresco, a hundred protesters descended on the company's Silicon Valley campus. A group called the Raging Grannies sang a song called “The Battle Hymn for the Internet,” and others carried signs reading, “Google is evil if the price is right.”

They were there to complain about what they saw as Google's about-face on how Internet access should be regulated and to deliver a petition with about 300,000 signatures.

Several of the groups at the protest, like MoveOn.org and Free Press, once saw Google as their top corporate ally in the fight for net neutrality — the principle that the Internet should be a level playing field, with all applications and services treated equally.

But a week ago, Google stunned many of its allies by crossing the aisle and teaming up with Verizon Communications to propose that net neutrality rules should not apply to wireless access and to outline rules for the wired Internet that critics say are riddled with loopholes.

Google's compromise with Verizon is the latest collision between idealism and pragmatism at the company, which has long promoted the idea that its mission, organizing the world's information, is for the public good, as underscored by its unofficial motto: “Don't be evil.”

Some say that as Google has grown up and become a large multinational company, it has been forced to start weighing its business interests against the more idealistic leanings of its founders and many of its employees.

“I don't know that Google pondered the moral decision this time,” said Jordan Rohan, an Internet and digital media analyst at Stifel Nicolaus. “I think the business decision to cooperate with Verizon superseded the other complications and side effects that it may cause.”

Google strongly defends its proposal with Verizon, saying it does not violate net neutrality principles and, if adopted by regulators, would protect wired Internet access more than it is protected now.

“We don't view this as a retreat at all,” Alan Davidson, Google's director of public policy, said in an interview. “Google believes very strongly in net neutrality.”

But the proposal left Google's former allies, as well as many other technology and media companies, feeling disappointed and even betrayed. The risk, they say, is that without adequate regulation, Internet access companies could exercise too much control over what their customers can do online, or how quickly they can gain access to certain content. They could charge companies for faster access to consumers, hurting smaller players and innovation.

“Google has been the most reliable corporate ally to the public interest community,” said Josh Silver, president of Free Press, an advocacy group. “That is why their sellout on net neutrality is so stunning.”

The proposal from Google and Verizon was all the more surprising to some advocates because it was released just as broader talks brokered by the Federal Communications Commission were close to producing a draft compromise agreement, according to three people briefed on the talks, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because the talks were supposed to be confidential.

Unlike the Google-Verizon proposal, the agreement would have imposed some rules on wireless Internet, these people said.

“We were very close,” said one person briefed on the talks. Both the FCC and Google declined to comment on those discussions. After reports of a Google-Verizon deal emerged, the FCC called off the talks, which in addition to those two companies included AT&T, a cable industry group, Skype and the Open Internet Coalition.

“I don't fault Google and Verizon for striking a deal,” said Susan Crawford, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School and a longtime supporter of net neutrality. “A large private company is always going to operate in its own interest, and for anyone to believe otherwise would be naive.”

But disappointed consumers and advocates seem to be holding Google to a different standard, in large part because of the image it created.