An ecology of accuracy

John Naughton’s Observer column this morning recounts the shitstorm the Wall Street Journal brought on itself with its innacurate and ignorant story on Google and content cashing (v. net neutrality) and concludes:

You might think this is all a storm in an online teacup, but in fact it’s a revealing case study of how our media ecosystem has changed. What happened is that reporters on a major newspaper got something wrong. Nothing unusual about that – and the concept of “network neutrality” is a slippery one if you’re not a geek or a communications regulator. But within minutes of the article’s publication, it was being picked up and critically dissected by bloggers all over the world. And much of the dissection was done soberly and intelligently, with commentators painstakingly explaining why Google’s move into content-caching did not automatically signal a shift in the company’s attitude to network neutrality. Lessig was able instantly to rebut the views attributed to him in the article.

Watching the discussion unfold online was like eavesdropping on a civilised and enlightening conversation. Browsing through it I thought: this is what the internet is like at its best – a powerful extension of what Jürgen Habermas once called “the public sphere”.

He continues on his blog:

This was about as far as you can get from the LiveJournal-OMG-my-cat-has-just-been-sick media stereotyping of blogging. It was an illustration of something that has always been true — that the world is full of clever, thoughtful, well-informed people. What has changed is that we now have a medium in which they can talk to one another — and to newspaper reporters, of only the latter are prepared to participate in the conversation….

My complaint about the WSJ’s reaction to the blogosphere’s reaction is that it evinced a refusal to participate. The errors made by its reporters were serious but for the most part understandable; journalism is the rushed first draft of history and we all make mistakes. The tragedy was that the Journal saw the blogosphere’s criticism as a problem, when it fact it was an opportunity.

  • I.F.Stoner

    It’s the rbick-and-mortar mentality again. Same thing that crushed the New York Times, LAT/Trib, others when they get called out on an error: “circle the wagons, attack the critic.”

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  • After reading the article, I wonder if Net Neutrality is as distant from Google’s approach to content caching as the author John Naughton suggests.

    (As far as my credentials, I was one of the first 12 people to work on a little startup called @Home — itself a content caching business, optimizing data delivery via cable operators — starting in December 1993, as an employee for TCI Technology Ventures in partnership with Kleiner Perkins.)

    It appears that Google is offering to help fund the construction of “private highways” co-located within the network provider’s facilities. (Ironically, this approach is the same strategy used by the original Worldcom business unit LDDS to grow rapidly and ultimately gobble up MCI — but that’s a story for another day.)

    If the network were truly neutral (according to the Wikipedia definition), it would have no equipment attached to it that would prefer any network, including Google. It would not discriminate between requests from Google or Yahoo servers, and YouTube would be treated on equal footing with say, Hulu.

    But that’s not what Google is suggesting. They would install *their* servers, enabling Google to cache *their* content for faster delivery. As a result, Google data services would benefit from “more” direct connections to the network.

    To say that Google would start emulating what Akamai and Limelight have been doing for years is not correct — in fact, Google is and has been a world leader in content caching pretty much since its inception. And unlike Akamai, AWS, Limelight, etc. — which generally use URL redirects to accelerate content on a fair and equal basis — Google routinely appends metadata to content which promotes its linking business.

    It appears that the importance of QoS on video distribution is forcing Google to rethink its assumptions and find new ways to improve the experience. It is precisely this thinking about QoS that runs counter to the premises of net neutrality, at least as Tim Wu envisioned it.

    Of course other companies could do it — if they could afford to, that is. A CDN costs billions to deploy in a positive economy. The recession has eviscerated network operator’s access to credit, making them more willing to contemplate a Faustian bargain, in essence granting preferential (or even most-favored nation) access without having to call it discriminatory access tiering. In return, the network operator gets cash and gets to decide how to prioritize Google’s access. While it doesn’t automatically lead to priority access, I’ve seen enough of these deals to know that they have the potential of degrading other communication streams, which is the premise that Net Neutrality advocates are most passionate about.

    The WSJ got one thing right: Google has shifted its stance. They blew it when they mischaracterized Lawrence Lessig’s stance as having somehow shifted.

    If Google were serious about maintaining its stance on network neutrality, they should render their access agreements transparent to the public, and demonstrate how they their implementation would support non-preferential FIFO access.

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