Will ‘Google Neutrality’ idea take hold?

The funny thing about the Web and content industry’s haranguing for “network” neutrality is that — despite its “don’t be evil” guiding principle — Google is as well positioned as any company to wield its power in less than neutral ways.

Need proof? How about the free GPS play in Android 2.0, announced this week. In a flash, stand-alone GPS vendors saw their stocks plummet and futures get cloudy. That’s real market power, in a sector that isn’t even central to Google’s true power base in search.

Ars Technica took the pains this week to boil down the arguments behind “Google Neutrality,” outlined in a paper by academic Andrew Odlyzko, from the School of Mathematics and Digital Technology Center, University of Minnesota. You can read his paper here (PDF) yourself.

His ideas — which apply just as well to the concept of “open mobile” as they do to “net neutrality”  — go something like this:

Should something like net neutrality prevail, the conflict would likely move to a different level. That level might become search neutrality. Or, as cloud computing takes off, one company (again, this might well be Google) could so completely dominate the market that it becomes another choke point. We might then need to consider “cloud neutrality.”

That’s the thing about neutrality (not to mention the idea of doing no evil) — it’s not (or shouldn’t be) about a particular technology or approach, but rather the concepts of equity and fairness. Now nobody ever said the business world was fair, but get big enough and the government starts watching.

Perhaps the most interesting thing these days is just how broadly that oversight tends to swing: Apple gets knocked for blocking Google Voice; Comcast gets put on notice for blocking traffic by protocol; incumbent carriers face the specter of net neutrality; Google acquisitions (DoubleClick) get a close look, and its growing power could merit even more.

It was also interesting earlier this year in the debate over “behavioral targeting” that while telcos were slammed for potentially invasive uses of deep packet inspection, Google’s potential use of social profiles and search behavior didn’t get off scott-free either.

By the way, Odlyzko is pro net neutrality, so he may not get many telecom industry fans. But if the meme of “Google Neutrality” takes hold and the principles of equity are wielded not just against telecom operators but against any player powerful enough to potentially discriminate against weaker competitors or unfairly bottleneck content or apps distribution, telcos may owe him a nod of thanks anyway.

P.S.: The battle of ideas here may be an uphill struggle. Google “Google Neutrality” today and you get 6200 results.  Google “Net Neutrality” and the results are not surprisingly on a different scale: 21.4 million results.

Ideas have to start somewhere.

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