Wall Street Journal story fires up Obama, net neutrality advocates

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal about President-elect Barack Obama and Google double-crossing advocates for an open Internet has the blogosphere boiling. And it’s caused enough of a stir that Google responded in its patented polite “do no evil” style that the Journal’s got it wrong. Really wrong.

Nancy Scola at TechPresident has a good summary:

There’s a dust-up over network neutrality that we’ll do our darnedest to encapsulate in one bullet point. Ready? Let’s go. Google, reported the Wall Street Journal’s Vishesh Kumar and Christopher Rhoads, has been quietly pushing a plan to create “a fast lane for its own content.” It is a program called OpenEdge that co-locates Google servers inside network-provider facilities. That “edge caching,” as it’s known has been done for a while now by companies like Akamai, without much controversy.

But those featured in the story are talking back, and they’re not pleased. Larry Lessig says that the “really extraordinary” thing the Journal did here is report a long-standing position as new news. Lessig argues that he’s always supported tiered services, as long as they’re open to everyone. And Google’s Richard Whitt says that not only does he not recall giving the kicker quote about Obama’s changing stand on neutrality, but that its plan is a service-provision issue that doesn’t at all run counter to the neutrality principles Google whole-heartedly supports.

The dust-up shines light on two facts that are often ignored in polite company. First, that reporters can sometime get things very wrong. And second, that “net neutrality” is, as an operating principles, not without its messiness at the edges.

The Obama transition team also completely refutes the Journal’s take that the president-elect’s position on net neutrality has shifted, according to TPM Election Central.


So why the controversy? And why does net neutrality even matter?

Because in the immortal words of Sen. Ted Stevens, who once fumblingly said of the Internet, “It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes,” the distribution channels (really “pipes” is the correct terminology) could be altered if Internet Service Providers charged a different rate depending upon the size of the data packet being sent and/or received. ISPs, like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, argue that they need to charge more to high-end users to enable the firms to further build out their bandwidth capacity.

So if you have the money, your “tube” would become an HOV lane, to continue Stevens’ mangled metaphor, and would arrive more quickly than competitors’ data, which could have chilling affect on small firms and nonprofits doing business on the Web.

Censorship concerns have also been raised about differing bandwidth speeds, depending upon the content of a Web site, e-mail or audio-video stream. Fall out of favor with the ISP (or the government), and your information could become much slower to arrive. The same goes for consumers who want to find a wide variety of information from sources unable to pay to play.

The basic concept of net neutrality is that all information passed along the Internet is treated equally. Therefore, today’s fight is over whether the Wall Street Journal simply got the facts wrong or is attempting to gin up a pro-business argument that has lost steam, especially as the pro-net-neutrality Obama nears taking office and will soon be making an appointment for a new Federal Communications Commission chair who will be regulating the Net.

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Wendy Norris

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