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Google Now a Target for Regulation

Headline in the Washington Post: “Tech companies pushed for net neutrality. Now Sen. Al Franken wants to turn it on them.” 9 Nov 2017

The time was—way back around the turn of the century—when all Internet companies believed that the Internet should be free from government regulation. I lobbied along with Google and Amazon to that end (there were no Twitter and Facebook then); we were successful over the objection of traditional telcos who wanted the protection of regulation. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under both Democrats and Republicans agreed to forbear from regulating the Internet the way they regulate the telephone network; the Internet flourished, to put it mildly.

Fast forward to 2015. Google and other Internet giants and their trade group, the Internet Association, were successful in convincing the Obama FCC to reverse that policy and regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) under the same regulation which helped to stifle innovation in telephony for decades. The intent, according to the Internet Association, was to protect Net Neutrality (a very good name) and assure that ISPs didn’t either censor or prefer their own content over the content of others—Google, for example. The regulation was acknowledged to be preemptive - ISPs weren’t discriminating but they might.

This spring Trump’s FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, announced the beginning of an effort to repeal the 2015 regulations and return the Internet to its former lightly regulated state. The Internet Association and its allies mounted a massive online campaign against deregulation in order, they said, to protect Net Neutrality. One of their allies was the Open Market Initiative, which was then part of The New America Foundation. More about them below.

I blogged to Google:

“You run a fantastically successful business. You deliver search results so valuable that we willingly trade the history of our search requests for free access. Your private network of data centers, content caches and Internet connections assure that Google data pops quickly off our screen. Your free Chrome browser, Android operating system, and gmail see our communication before it gets to the Internet and gets a last look at what comes back from the Internet before passing it on to us. You make billions by monetizing this information with at least our implied consent. I mean all this as genuine praise.

“But I think you’ve made a mistake by inviting the regulatory genie on to the Internet. Have you considered that Google is likely to be the next regulatory target?”

It didn’t take long.

In August the European Union declared a penalty against Google. Barry Lynn of the Open Market Initiative posted praise for the EU decision on the New America website. According to the NY Times:

“The New America Foundation has received more than $21 million from Google; its parent company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt; and his family’s foundation since the think tank’s founding in 1999. That money helped to establish New America as an elite voice in policy debates on the American left and helped Google shape those debates…

“Hours after this article was published online Wednesday morning, Ms. Slaughter announced that the think tank had fired Mr. Lynn on Wednesday for ‘his repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality.’”

Mr. Lynn and his colleagues immediately founded The Open Market Institute. The front page of their websites says:

“Amazon, Google and other online super-monopolists, armed with massive dossiers of data on every American, are tightening their grip on the most vital arteries of commerce, and their control over the media we use to share news and information with one another.”

Sen. Al Franken and the Open Market Institute held an event which led to the WaPo headline and the article which begins:

“For years, tech companies have insisted that they’re different from everything else. Take Facebook, which has long claimed that it’s a simple tech platform, not a media entity. ‘Don’t be evil,’ Google once said to its employees, as though it were setting itself apart from the world’s other massive corporations.

“But now, some policymakers are increasingly insisting that firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter really aren’t that special after all—and that perhaps it’s time they were held to the same standard that many Americans expect of electricity companies or Internet providers.

“Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) became the latest and most vocal of these critics Wednesday when, at a Washington conference, he called for tech companies to follow the same net neutrality principles that the federal government has applied to broadband companies such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast.”

I’m not happy to have been right; on the contrary, I’m appalled. The last thing we should want is the government regulating Internet content, especially at a time when both the political right and the political left are anti-free speech. But there is no principled argument that Google’s potential competitors, the ISPs, should be constrained by regulatory oversight while Google, much bigger than any of these competitors and much more dominant worldwide, can exert its dominance freely. Google truly opened a Pandora’s box and let out a regulatory genie.

As much as I am against regulatory oversight of content, I do believe that the government has a very proper role both in antitrust and in truth in advertising. These are some of the tools which do need to be used to keep new or old oligarchs from ruling the world.

By Tom Evslin, Nerd, Author, Inventor

His personal blog ‘Fractals of Change’ is at blog.tomevslin.com.

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The what's yours is mine game Anthony Rutkowski  –  Nov 13, 2017 10:31 PM

It began 40 years ago and hasn’t stopped.  Providers higher on the stack want a free ride on top of providers at lower layers.  Arguing for Title II based regulation to further the free ride (a/k/a NetNeutrality) is an unwise tactic to do that.  Unconstrained end-to-end encryption to further the free ride is also an unwise tactic and similarly has both anti-competitive and security implications.  Agent software that reports commercially valuable user information back to the provider through encrypted tunnels also raises that concern duality.  Security and resilience of national infrastructures are also a proper role of government.

The most significant challenge, however, is when a Nation State actor employs massive resources to use content as a means of bringing about regime change in another Nation State - also known as information warfare.  Those implications are profound. 

So regulatory oversight of content has some significant conundrums and seems unlikely to go away.

Where is the free ride? I pay Todd Knarr  –  Nov 14, 2017 4:03 AM

Where is the free ride? I pay my ISP to provide me access to the Internet, to carry the data I request (since I'm paying for a 2-way connection, not a one-way one). Why then should I not expect them to do exactly that regardless of which services on the Internet I request data from? And the service I request data from pays it's access provider for it's connection and it's data. Why should they not expect their data to be carried regardless of who's requesting it? I always hear about how Google is getting a free ride from my ISP by expecting them to carry Google's data for free. But they're not carrying Google's data. They're carrying my data that I requested from Google, and I'm paying them to do exactly that. So where is there a free ride? The only way I could see there being a free ride is if my ISP stopped sending me a bill every month and expected services like Google to pay for my connection. But they do send me a bill and they expect me to pay it, so I expect to get what I'm paying for: carriage both ways of the data I originate and request. Now there's an issue with the imbalance of payments between my ISP and Google's access provider, but that's because my ISP limits it's subscribers to being clients only which means the data flow will be primarily from Google's access provider to my ISP. That, frankly, isn't Google's problem. It's my ISP's responsibility to make sure they charge a price that'll cover their costs. Not, mind you, that they're really having a problem with that right now. If you look at their financials, their complaint isn't that they aren't making a profit but that they're not making the kind of profit Google does. Well, they haven't gone out and created something people want more than Google, so what do they expect.

It is still a free ride Anthony Rutkowski  –  Nov 14, 2017 1:41 PM

The reality here doesn’t seem disputed.  The assertion is that you are paying for a portion of the ride, therefore the selection of hitchhikers is your choice.  There are also almost certainly constraints found in the customer service agreement with your local provider.  There are also multiple “rides” at multiple layers on the path back to the source end point.

It is also not clear that the data provided pursuant to your request is “your data.”

Lastly, it appears that ultimately the holy grail is to accumulate as much information about the end user as possible to meet every need.  The consumer protection, antitrust, and security challenges here are enormous, and it is not clear how that gets sorted out.

How am I paying for only a Todd Knarr  –  Nov 14, 2017 8:31 PM

How am I paying for only a portion of the ride? Are you saying that I'd be given some Internet connectivity if I didn't pay for my service? I assure you, that's not the case. I pay for the entire ride, and I consider myself entitled to get the ride I paid for. If I paid for a ride for up to 10 people, I expect not to have the taxi company demanding more money from my destination because I had 8 people in the taxi instead of just 2. And if the taxi company's leasing the car from someone who adds mileage charges and such onto the bill each month, well, that's between the taxi company and whoever they're leasing the car from and it's simply Not My Problem beyond the fact that it's something the taxi company has to factor into their rates (and if they don't, still Not My Problem). And no, the data isn't "my data" any more than what the receiving party on a phone call says belongs to me. But when I paid for the phone call I paid for a 2-way circuit and I expect to hear what the receiving party says without them having to pay an additional toll for their side of the call. And yes that applies to mobile calls too. If I call someone who has Verizon service when I'm on T-Mobile, the other person may have to use airtime minutes from their Verizon plan but they're not going to have to pay T-Mobile any extra for their half of the traffic on top of what they're paying Verizon.

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