UPDATE: It’s looking more and more to me as if the New York Times report that provoked the first half of this post went too far. See the footnote below with denials of a deal from Verizon and Google, though those statements leave much to be asked: namely, what are the discussions; what is the compromise over net neutrality? But I just read this from a CNBC interview with Eric Schmidt that spoke more clearly: “Schmidt clarified that the net neutrality he advocates is not a neutrality between different types of content, but between the same type of content. He wants to make sure that there’s no discrimination between one video download over another.” So under that rubric, a YouTube video would not get discriminatory treatment over my video.
Update on the update: The Times stands by its story. What we need here is a good dose of transparency. It is, again, our internet they’re talking about.
The original post:
The report that Google is making a devil’s pact with Verizon for tiered internet service is disturbing because I wonder whether people inside Google are still asking that vital question: “Is this evil?” I wonder whether Google is still Google.
I don’t mean to come off like a high priest of the net neutrality church. But if ISPs like Verizon can charge tiered pricing for quality (vs. unquality?) service, then it’s the consumers who’ll get screwed because costs will be passed onto us. ISPs (like newspapers) want added revenue streams but those streams always end up at our feet. But we know that.
What also concerns me is that creators will get screwed, too. Only the big guys will be able to afford to pay ISPs for top-tier service and so we return to the media oligarchy that — O, irony — YouTube and Google broke apart. Google, I fear, is gravitating back to the big-media side because it wants those brands on YouTube so it can get their advertisers on YouTube because those advertisers are still too stupid to see where the customers really are. And then we’re back to a world of big-media control over what we get to see. It was the millions of little guys — people who made their own videos, people who embedded videos — who made YouTube YouTube.
But that’s short-sighted strategizing, I think — I hope — because fragmentation is infinite; blockbusters will get ever-harder and ever-more-expensive to create; advertising will catch up with reality, the real world, and customers and (unless the Wall Street Journal ruins it) become far more targeted and relevant; advertising will also start to fade away; the mass market will shrink.
But this is a last-gasp attempt to hold onto mass-market economics (vs. open-market scale). [Craig Roth in the comments makes the critical point that the story I linked to is supposition rather than announcement, a caveat I certainly should have delivered. As I said in response to him, I thought this was worth discussing before it was fait accompli in the hopes that it won't be.]
It’s an uncomfortable moment for a Google fan boy. This report comes at the same time that Google killed Wave. Now Wave has had its detractors who are now cackling, but it’s not the specific platform that concerns me. It’s that Google can’t figure out how to launch new platforms. Wave was a bust. Buzz was a bust. Knol was a bust. Orkut was mostly a bust. Brilliant people like Gina Trapani hung their hats on these platforms; she wrote the book on Wave and others started developing it and now the rug’s pulled out from under them because Google didn’t support their development, which is what would have made Wave a success. Evil or merely rude?
The reason these efforts were busts is because Google didn’t think them through, didn’t have the corporate discipline to find and execute on clear-eyed strategy. I’m all for beta — I learned that lesson from Google — but you can’t just spend your life throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks. Eventually, you’re knee-deep in shit. But you can do that for a long time — if you have lots of money. A poor startup uses betas to learn precious lessons because they can’t afford to fail. This rich company is using betas, I fear, rather than making hard decisions up front — because it can afford to. So Wave may have ended up dead anyway but if it were run by entrepreneurs it would have struggled long and hard before taking its last breath.
I worry that Google isn’t an entrepreneurial company anymore. It didn’t start those platforms under the hard economics of entrepreneurship. And it hasn’t nurtured some outside entrepreneurs well. If it did, Dodgeball would be Foursquare today.
My real fear then is that Google is too big. I certainly don’t mean that in the way that EU regulators do: “so big we have to rule it.” Uh-uh. No, I mean it may be too big for its own good. Too big for the right hand to find the left hand and have coherent strategies for operating systems (Android v. Chrome) and applications (Docs v. Wave). So big that it starts to identify with other big guys (ISPs and Hollywood entertainment conglomerates). Big is a fine thing when it brings critical mass and the freedom to innovate. As Eric Schmidt himself says, lack of innovation can kill a tech company. So can bad innovation — fat innovation.
I’ve never bought the arguments that Google is a one-trick pony. Honda is a one-trick pony; it makes cars. That’s not Google’s problem. Its problem is that everything it faces is new and it can’t ever afford the luxury of leaning back on old lessons and old relationships. So what does it hold onto on that rapids ride? It has to hold onto its mission — organize the world’s information, etc. — and its evolving definition of evil so it doesn’t stray. It also needs to find the organizational structure — the firm-jawed management — to force different teams with different agendas to work to shared goals and to hold them to entrepreneurial discipline.
All of these are just early warning signs — every early. It’s good — for Google and also for a fan boy like me — to see these cracks because, used properly, they are lessons that help a company get back on its track and shade its eyes from the bright glare of hubris. But only if they ask the really hard questions. Like, is that evil?
: MORE: On a different thread, I also want to note that I think the way this devils’ deal works out is that it will give the FCC and possibly even the FTC and Congress the rope they need to hang ISPs on net neutrality. Is that Google’s really evil plan? It doesn’t like regulation but wants it in this case and so it’s creating the invitation for it? Naw. As I said, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. In any case, I do think that such a deal will invite regulation.
: I won’t cry for ISPs. I was at a meeting of cable ISPs some years ago when they were all cackling about their margins on broadband exceeding 40%. They ain’t hurting. The solution to all this remains competition. Remember that Google’s founders entered the big spectrum auction a few years ago to force neutrality and they want broadcast white spaces opened up to become “wi-fi on steroids” and thus competition for broadband providers.
: ALSO: I want credit for not making a WWGD? gag. I leave that to Twitter. But it may, indeed soon be time for a sequel (or update).
: LATER: Verizon put a statement on its public policy blog that says the Times report linked above is “mistaken.” It doesn’t say whether there’s any agreement but talks about its “purpose” — a “policy framework that ensures openness and accountability, and incorporates specific FCC authority, while maintaining investment and innovation. To suggest this is a business arrangement between our companies is entirely incorrect.” I’m not sure what that means. The more transparency about these dealings from all parties — including the FCC — the better.
Google said on its public policy Twitter feed: “@NYTimes is wrong. We’ve not had any convos with VZN about paying for carriage of our traffic. We remain committed to an open internet.”
The AP quotes the FCC saying that Google and Verizon are involved in stakeholder talks and Verizon is quoted saying that it is talking with Google about a “compromise on net neutrality” in the AP’s phrasing. The question remains: What are they talking about?