Pipes, Faucets, and Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is interesting to contemplate in light of initiatives like Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP. The animating spirit of Net Neutrality was that everybody using the Internet should have equal access to its bandwidth and reach, so that companies like Verizon and Comcast couldn't throttle access in order to extort money from content providers for faster speeds.

Yet, here we are, with two dominant internet companies positioning themselves relative to content providers in about the same way Verizon and Comcast were planning to do so. There are no objections this time, no mass movements, no protests. In fact, it seems the changes are barely registering, even as they echo those attempted by equally large companies just a few years ago. Only recently have some taken notice, such as the head of Drupal and the head of WordPress.

Perhaps the main difference is between hardware providers and software providers. After all, Facebook and Google aren't looking to change the way the major pipes provide information. They're just regulating the faucets. It doesn't seem like a system-wide change, until you realize that Facebook and Google are the Delta and Kohler of the internet -- they make a lot of the faucets we use every day.

They've built a faster internet, and content companies are being asked to cater to these giants in order to use it.

It's not as if the software of Google and Facebook and others haven't been shaping the internet in important ways for years. Companies have been scrambling to keep up with the search engine algorithms at Google to remain discoverable, which in another context might be interpreted as a hidden tax on content providers imposed by Google's dominance. Facebook has been less intrusive until Instant Articles, but apparently saw an opportunity its dominance created for what it is -- a chance to create a walled garden of content for itself.

The software (faucet) providers have their commercial interests at heart, and are not providing faster load times and more reliable delivery out of the goodness of their hearts. There are plenty of provisos about what can and cannot be displayed in content and ads, making Facebook yet again a player in potential censorship of ideas and speech, a perilous position for a communications platform.

Aside from this, there is the precedent this sets. While we may have addressed the problem of internet service providers wanting to be paid by both providers and consumers (in the case of Facebook and Google, as mainly advertising businesses, they are paid because they collect consumers for advertisers), we have equally dominant businesses positioning themselves to make a two-tier internet, as well. The playbook may have some different vocabulary and tactics, but the goal is the same -- drive growth by creating a faster tier of internet service for those willing to pay for it.

Should we be concerned? It's not as if Google always lives up to its "don't be evil" mantra, having apparently colluded with Apple to stifle fair hiring in Silicon Valley a few years ago. Facebook's controversies have merited a long, well-interlinked Wikipedia page called, "Criticism of Facebook." Memorable controversies include its manipulation of experiences for a study, a nasty anti-Google campaign, and aggressive tax-avoidance strategies. Both companies have major lobbying campaigns in DC, and both are as sophisticated as any multi-billion-dollar firm.

Dominance is dominance, whether that's achieved through hardware or software, pipes or faucets. It seems that Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP are two software providers' attempt to create a two-tier internet which will make it harder for new entrants to succeed, helpt the two companies to be even more dominant over content providers and their speech, and ultimately threaten the Open Web.

Or maybe Silicon Valley companies get a pass when it comes to breaking Net Neutrality with their business practices and software. After all, they have promised "don't be evil."