Google has just announced that they will now begin factoring page speed in their search algorithm rankings. That means the faster a website loads, the higher up they show up in Google searches. Sluggish sites on the other hand will be knocked down the search rankings even if they have the most relevant information. While I believe that Google’s latest actions are rational and that it serves consumer interests since no one wants a slow results, it does raise an interesting dilemma for “Network Neutrality” advocates who propagate the myth that all websites should operate at the same speed.
One of the key principles propagated by Net Neutrality advocates is this idea that all websites should run at the same speed over the Internet. For example; Megan Tady of Save The Internet (Free Press) wrote:
“Net Neutrality” is the basic principle that keeps the Internet free from corporate control. It means that companies like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T cannot block or control content on the Web, and that all Web sites and applications download and upload at the same speeds. In other words, any blog, video or Web site that I create will travel at the same speed as something produced by the mammoth media conglomerates.”
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps echoed similar concerns when he said:
“Can you tell me that minority and women’s voices on the Internet are getting through to major audiences—really being heard—like the big corporate sites?”
Last week when I appeared on a panel at CommNexus, I posed the question if the small website paying $50/month (like this website) should have the same speed and capacity as large mega sites that pay $1 million/month for Internet connectivity. Philip Baker (who I debated in January and since found to be a very personable nice guy) responded yes because he feels that small websites should run at the same speed as large websites. Fellow panelist Jon Healey of the LA Times raised similar sentiments that big Hollywood studios hate Net Neutrality and love prioritized networks because it will shut out the little guy from movie distribution.
While these sentiments of equality are extremely popular and people want them to be true even if they aren’t, we can’t base policy on a fantasy world. Free Press, Baker, and Healey should explain when in the history of the Internet has there ever been a time that the “little guy” can have same Internet connectivity as the large corporation? Which Internet Service Provider will provide me a $50/month service that gives me the same Internet connectivity as Amazon.com or Facebook.com? And if this type of high speed low cost service existed, why would Amazon or Facebook continue to pay hundreds of thousands of times more for Internet connectivity?
ISPs are not the gatekeepers of visibility and never have been
The reality is that the Internet has been a revolutionary technology that has empowered the little guy, but not for the reasons Free Press and others neutrality advocates think. The Internet isn’t the great equalizer because it gives equal access to Internet connectivity regardless of the price; it’s the great equalizer because it is cheap enough that equality doesn’t matter. We are in an unprecedented era of publishing where $50/month of server hosting allows anyone to publish 20 million page views per month (assuming 1000 GB usage at 50 KB per page view). Rapidly improving technology and falling prices are the same reason that an $800 digital SLR camera can shoot better quality movies than the $100,000 camera 10 years ago.
We are in an unprecedented era of video broadcasting when anyone with a $200 camera can distribute “HD” 1080P video to the entire world for free using services like Google YouTube. This idea that the little guy is shut out if we permit premium service Internet connectivity (how it has always been) is simply nonsense. $50/month for 20 million page views and free video distribution via YouTube destroys any notion that the Internet Service Providers and network operators are the gatekeepers of the Internet.
Network performance still a small factor in visibility
Search has always been the biggest factor on Internet visibility and it is ironic that Net Neutrality advocates have always conveniently ignored this aspect. Every webpage owner knows that if their site doesn’t show up on the first page of a Google search, they might as well be invisible to most of the world. Even with Google’s search rankings based on site speed, network performance still plays a minimum role in visibility on the Internet.
Good servers and good software developers from quality universities (which Google, Facebook, and Microsoft seem to always have first dibs on), both of which cost a lot more than Internet connectivity play a much larger role in the performance of a webpage. Far more important to search rankings is the quality of the content. On YouTube where Google pays for the servers and bandwidth, the cost of servers and bandwidth become non-factors. Having a cute or silly looking animal or being endowed with good humor or good cleavage, or having the ability to pay good writers and good actors plays the most important role in gaining viewers. The ability to pay an Internet Service Provider is the least significant factor in Internet visibility and it illustrates why the obsession with network equality in Net Neutrality has been a red herring all along.