On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Google and Verizon"are nearing an agreement that could … speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content's creators are willing to pay for the privilege." While both Google and Verizon quickly denied the NYT report, the newspaper says it's standing by its story. If the Times is right, this content-for-cash scheme would be the greatest scandal in Google's history. We could term it "Internet Payola," after the practice of record labels paying radio stations to play their songs.
The plan would probably work like this: In exchange for payment or some other mutually beneficial considerations, Verizon would give special priority to sites like Google.com and YouTube, making them run faster than competitors like Yahoo.com and Hulu. Such a payola scheme would violate the precept of net neutrality, the belief that all packets that travel over the Internet should be treated equally. It would be a betrayal of the public's trust from a firm that has long sold itself as a fair broker and has tirelessly tempered its growing power with its advocacy of "open networking." It would also reveal the need for immediate federal action on net neutrality and continued oversight over all corporate monopolies that control speech and commerce.
How could Google be moving away from its "open networking" values? The people I've spoken to at Google claim that no such movement is afoot—that the New York Times story is "wrong." In contrast, another source with knowledge of the discussions says the Times story is "generally accurate." A Verizon spokesman admitted to the Times that the company has "been working with Google for 10 months to reach an agreement on broadband policy." Whether the two have actually agreed to a payola scheme is not yet known. What is clear is that Google is in bed with Verizon; the only question is how far things have gone.
As the owner of the world's most popular Internet site, Google has always had an incentive to offer cash in exchange for favors for its content. Yet until now it has resisted the temptation and instead declared itself the world's greatest enemy of net discrimination. As a kind of living proof, Google has on its payroll several leading prophets of Internet openness, like Vint Cerf and Fred Von Lohmann. Its founders consider themselves members, in good standing, of the 21st-century openness movement. If you're a cynic, you might think the openness talk was always just talk. Yet there are definitely people on Google's campus who believe in it.
In fairness to Google, the company has certainly done more than just talk about openness. The company has spent real money in Washington, D.C., defending net neutrality before the FCC and Congress. In 2005, Google could have destroyed YouTube through a deal with Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast; instead, it bought the video-streaming firm. Google retreated in China for many reasons but at least in part because of net censorship. The tension between Google's ideology and incentives has always been there, however. Even so, hearing about a possible cash-for-favors agreement with Verizon is not unlike finding out that the Pope isn't Catholic.
If Google hasn't switched sides, it has certainly softened, particularly in the wireless realm. If an Internet payola scheme does come to pass, it's most likely that this prioritization would happen on wireless devices, like your mobile phone, rather than wired devices like your desktop computer.
We can find an explanation for Google's changing stance on wireless in several places. First, Google has clearly felt threatened by the rise of the wireless Internet, in particular the popularity of the Apple/AT&T iPhone. The firm was born, after all, on the late-1990s Internet, which arrived over wires plugged into a computer. The computer isn't obsolete, of course, but if you use an iPhone, you'll notice you don't really need Google as much as you used to.