How Google’s Silence Helped Net Neutrality Win

Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler, center, joins hands with FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, left, and Jessica Rosenworcel, before the start of their open hearing in Washington, DC, on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015.

Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler, center, joins hands with FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, left, and Jessica Rosenworcel, before the start of their open hearing in Washington, DC, on Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Before the FCC voted today to adopt new rules that will make it easier for the agency to enforce net neutrality, the agency’s commissioners heard from three people who believe in an open internet: Chad Dickerson, the CEO of Etsy; Veena Sud, the executive Producer of the Netflix-produced serial The Killing; and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web.

But they didn’t hear from Google, one of the companies that spent the most money on lobbying five years ago when the FCC last examined the issue.

Google certainly cares about net neutrality. Three years ago, it hired the FCC’s top lawyer, Austin Schlick, and he’s lobbied the FCC several times over the past year, according to the FCC. But there was no Net Neutrality Google Doodle on the front page of the company’s search engine—not even a press statement from the company after the historic FCC vote this morning. And it wasn’t the only one.

We saw much the same thing from other internet giants—Facebook and Microsoft, for instance—that have benefited from the idea of net neutrality and stand to gain financially if big internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon are blocked from charging extra for priority access to their customers.

Aside from Netflix—the large company that would be most directly hammered by any attempt to put toll lanes on the internet—the trench warfare fight for net neutrality was largely waged by small companies, policy groups, and millions of Americans who are fed up with their internet service providers.

“In 2010 large companies like Google, eBay, Microsoft, and Skype, were really important partners in the fight for network neutrality rules,” says Barbara van Schewick, a Stanford professor who has written about net neutrality. “They lobbied the FTC; they send their lobbyists to Congress; they all submitted detailed comments to the FCC. This round of the net neutrality debate was very different.”

The question is: Why?

In some ways, it’s a sign of the times, and a broader, more politically connected tech lobby. Five years ago, there weren’t as many advocacy groups and tech companies with a Washington presence.

Google did not return messages seeking comment Thursday. But observers say that the company may have been discouraged by the results of its 2010 lobbying effort and reluctant to alienate Republican lawmakers by calling for internet regulation. This time around the FCC ended up going with very strong regulation. After today’s rules are adopted it will treat internet companies as easier-to-regulate telecommunications service providers. This is the Title II option, a reference to the “Title II” section that defines these providers in the nation’s telecommunications law.

“Remember when this debate started, Title II was thought to be the nuclear option. So even saying that you supported title ii was perceived to be taking a huge risks,” van Schewick says. “It risked drawing the ire of the Republicans in Congress who might retaliate in various ways.”

But Google and others did enough. In May, when it seemed like the FCC was going to steer clear of Title II, Google, Amazon, Facebook, eBay and around 150 other tech companies signed a letter warning that if they allowed the ISPs to tack on tolls to content providers, the agency’s proposed rules represented a “grave threat to the internet.”

That letter marked a turning point, van Schewick says. “It was significant that the large technology companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft also signed on to this letter, because it signaled to everyone in Washington that large companies do care about it.”

But from that point on, it was up to advocacy groups such as Public Knowledge and Engine and the smaller companies, like Etsy, Mozilla, and Reddit to carry on the fight. And they succeed. By September, the FCC’s website had been overwhelmed with nearly 4 million comments, most of which were in favor of net neutrality.

In November, President Barack Obama called for Title II regulation, and by then the momentum was unstoppable. The move toward net neutrality had tech industry support and populist momentum, and the White House offering political cover.

In retrospect, not having Google meant that this version of the net neutrality appeared to be less about big companies slugging it out, and more about the viability of the internet for startups and consumers. “Everyone just assumed that the Googles of the world would lead the way,” says Julie Samuels, Engine’s executive director. “That didn’t happen this time, and still they won.”

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