About That Open Internet Thing

The Verizon-Google Net neutrality deal is now public. In brief: neutrality for Plain Old Internet, transparency but not neutrality for wireless, and nothing for “Additional Online Services” unless they “threaten the availability” of POI. They’re pushing their plan as a legislative framework.

I have no comment on the substance of the proposal. I have been reading and thinking about openness and neutrality for some time, and don’t yet feel that I know enough to offer an informed opinion about whether network neutrality is a good technical or policy idea, which forms of monopoly and closure to be most concerned about in the wireless world, or such matters. These are hard questions, and I am very suspicious of anyone who professes certainty.

I would like to say, though, that this secretly negotiated private “deal” is a terrible, terrible blunder on Google’s part, considered purely from the perspective of its own self-interest. Google has enjoyed a generally good relationship with many activists and civil society groups who want to protect individual freedoms online. Even if what Google is now proposing is good policy, the backroom nature of the process sends an unmistakable message to Google’s erstwhile allies: we’re with you only as long as it’s convenient for us.

Once that message sinks in, I expect many of them to take a long, hard look not just at where Google stands, but at where it could stand, on issues that they care about. Some of them are likely to shift into the “skeptics” column, to start sounding more like Siva Vaidhyanathan and Consumer Watchdog. And when the real day of reckoning comes for Google—the federal antitrust lawsuit—Eric Schmidt may be unpleasantly surprised at how few allies Google’s years of running a public-minded policy shop have won him. After all, if Google is willing to change its mind and shift course like this on an issue it has made such a big deal of, then “trust us” rings a bit more hollow wherever else it is invoked.

I know a lot of Googlers. They take “Don’t Be Evil” seriously. It’s part of the corporate culture in a surprisingly profound way. But so is intellectual arrogance. Individual Googlers tend to be nice, but Larry and Sergey set a certain tone. (They were smart and lucky, and have forgotten the luck.)

Google’s theory of how to do right—its theory of how to do anything—is that a bunch of very smart Googlers get together and figure out the problem. They’re open-minded, interested in hearing lots of options and testing them against hard data, and utterly sincere in their desire to find an optimal solution. But once they’ve found one, the Googlier-than-thou attitude kicks in. Why aren’t people adopting our clearly superior new way of doing things? (See, e.g., Google Wave.) Why are people complaining when we’ve worked so hard to anticipate all problems? (See, e.g., Google Buzz.) Ironically, it’s Google’s very devotion to not being evil that leads to this blind spot—other companies with less of a sense of integrity would simply act out of self-interest and accept that brickbats will follow. Google is honestly stung by criticism, because it is so unexpected.

Here is some criticism, then. Eric Schmidt, it profits a CEO not to give his company’s soul for the whole world … but for Wales? And Alan Davidson, you came from the civil society world, and you of all people should know how this announcement will be received there. It was your job to keep Google from making this kind of blunder, and in that you have failed. You and your colleagues who went to Google in hopes of doing good need to be asking yourselves whether you really are.

I disagree. It’s not they who are wrong, but us for not expecting this result.

Regarding “And when the real day of reckoning comes for Google — the federal antitrust lawsuit — Eric Schmidt may be unpleasantly surprised at how few allies Google’s years of running a public-minded policy shop have won him.”

Nope. It’d be nice if there was a world where that sort of conduct mattered, but it sure isn’t this one. All Google will have to do is spread some money around (again), and bygones will be bygones. The top policy people won’t give it a thought, then almost everyone else will follow like falling dominoes. Anyone who points out the history won’t get heard, and can simply be character-assassinated if it even matters.

Having many bright engineers does not prevent Google as a company from having ruthless and amoral lawyers and flacks. That’s the mistake you make in your post above.