Internet Slowdown Over Title II: The Story That The Media Missed About Google

Erik Telford President, Franklin Center
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With the Federal Communications Commission due to decide on new rules that would reclassify broadband providers as a government controlled public utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934, a fierce debate has opened up across the country spurring a record breaking 1.4 million comments submitted to the FCC website.

To show support of regulating broadband providers under Title II, many major websites like Netflix and Mozilla posted fake “loading wheels of death” on their sites to warn users about what will allegedly happen if the FCC does not take a strong stand to ensure that everyone is treated “equally” when it comes to internet access.

By all appearances, search-engine giant Google knows better than to jump on the Title II bandwagon, at least individually, despite the calls for regulation by some of their trade associations, but you wouldn’t think that reading the media’s account of the slowdown protests. Google was frequently lumped in with others in the tech industry, which, according to reports, united against the evils of leaving internet access to the whims of broadband providers by urging supporters to join the protest on social media.

Politico’s Morning Tech hyped Google’s involvement, noting that the company, “sent an email to its “Take Action” list, urging them to join the protest on social media.” And while Google did send out an action alert for the slowdown, their message was effectively a non-statement, regurgitating the same vague language that they have used for years.

The Mercury News’s SiliconBeat tech blog made the audacious claim that “Wednesday for the first time, Google voiced its support for net neutrality” before mistakenly conflating the FCC’s current Title II proposal with separate policy positions on net neutrality that Google has in fact undertaken in a highly publicized manner going back to 2006.

In fact, given the company’s outspoken history regarding FCC regulatory efforts, Google’s deliberate decision not to take a position on the FCC’s new proposed changes sends a more powerful statement than if they had. Though the media’s inflated coverage failed to note it, their participation in the internet slowdown was clearly a means of appeasement aimed at inoculating criticism from their allies.

The Washington Post, while still suggesting that the tech company was coming around in favor of Title II, actually made a point to clarify that “Google stopped short of endorsing a particular policy prescription,” and further noted that “a Google spokeswoman declined to say whether the company would be submitting a formal comment to the FCC.”

Classifying broadband services under Title II is problematic for a number of reasons – and not just ISPs, but also the tech ecosystem at large. The Internet does not function like other public utilities like water and electricity, and there’s no reason to think that a dynamic, evolving technology like the internet will improve as the government takes a heavier hand in controlling access.

We can all agree it would be bad if internet service providers started arbitrarily blocking certain services, as Google’s statement says, but assuming that all technology companies are pushing for extensive regulation, like those that put loading icons up on their websites, misleads readers into assuming more than what many companies, like Google, have actually stated.

I’ve been very critical of Google on a wide array of issues in the past, but their statement does not mean that the company is part of some vaguely-defined tech coalition as much of media coverage suggests. On the contrary, Google’s deliberate action not to take a position is a refreshing sign.