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Where's Google in the Net Neutrality Fight?

Large Internet companies have been mostly absent so far in the FCC's net neutrality fight.

Amy Schatz

Federal regulators have received more than 625,000 comments about a controversial proposal to allow broadband providers to offer fast-lane service on the Internet. None, so far, has been from Google.

The search giant and other large tech companies, including Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and eBay, may support net neutrality rules, but they don’t appear to be spending much time or money in Washington fighting for them.

That’s a sharp contrast from four years ago, when those companies, particularly Google, fought a high-profile lobbying war with telecommunications and cable companies over net neutrality, which is the idea that Internet traffic should be treated equally and not blocked or slowed.

The FCC isn’t expected to make a final decision on rules until the end of the year, so there’s still plenty of time for big tech companies to engage. An initial deadline for commenting on the rules ends in less than two weeks. But their seeming reluctance to get too heavily involved may be a boon for broadband providers like Verizon and Comcast*, which invest heavily in lobbyists and interest groups to help get their way in D.C.

The tech companies signed onto a letter protesting Wheeler’s fast-lane net neutrality proposal, but appear to have done relatively little since then.

Heavily-regulated Internet providers, by contrast, have been busy commissioning economic studies, reviving “grassroots” advocacy groups, hosting numerous panels around D.C. and generally building a defense against efforts by net neutrality advocates to push the FCC to impose more regulations on Internet lines.

“My worry about net neutrality is: What are you trying to fix? What are you trying to solve?” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said earlier this month during a Washington Economic Club luncheon, conveniently held at a hotel next door to the Federal Communications Commission. “I think we ought to be very cautious about tinkering with this thing.”

Stephenson’s counterpart at Verizon, CEO Lowell McAdam, travelled to Washington on June 3 to ask Wheeler to avoid re-regulating lines under Title 2 of the Communications Act, which was written with old phone networks in mind. Cisco CEO John Chambers had a similar message for Wheeler during a June 18 meeting in Wheeler’s eighth floor office.

By contrast, when Wheeler set up meetings with a few dozen tech leaders in San Francisco last week for the sole purpose of talking net neutrality, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston declined the request, because he was “simply not available that day.” A handful of other invited startup executives also missed the meetings, including Sherpa Ventures’ Shervin Pishevar and former Facebook executive Chris Kelly, citing schedule conflicts.

“This is an incredibly important moment for startups and mid-size tech companies because this is primarily their battle. Frankly, they’re the ones who will get screwed if they don’t have net neutrality,” said Julie Samuels, executive director at Engine Advocacy, a San Francisco-based advocacy group. “The larger tech companies who are traditionally involved in public policy issues are going to be helpful, but this isn’t their fight. They can afford bad net neutrality.”

Google Steps Back

Last week, a small group of protestors calling themselves “Occupy Google” unfurled some tents and posters and plopped down on the sidewalk outside Google’s headquarters to protest the company’s relative silence on net neutrality.

“Though Google and other major companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Microsoft have come out in support of preserving a free and open web, we believe much more can be done,” the group wrote in a manifesto on its website. “Google, with its immense power, has a social responsibility to uphold the values of the Internet.”

Google spent $15.8 million last year lobbying lawmakers, making it the twelfth biggest spender in D.C., according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It was the only Internet company to crack the top 20 in spending, spending slightly less than AT&T and slightly more than Boeing. The company’s D.C. staff recently moved into a new office space, just a few blocks from the Capitol, more than twice as large as its old location.

Google’s reluctance to take center stage in the current fight over rules for Internet lines is a stark change from four years ago, when the company was central to cutting a deal which provided a template for the agency’s net neutrality rules (which were rejected by a federal appeals court in January).

After weeks of closed-door negotiations with other industry players and senior FCC officials, Google and Verizon presented a net neutrality proposal similar to what Wheeler recently proposed. It mostly exempted wireless networks from net neutrality rules and would have allowed broadband providers to experiment with offering fast-lane service to content companies.

Public interest groups weren’t amused and Google lobbyists were accused of selling out the industry and consumers. One group launched a “Google, don’t be evil” petition aimed to the company’s co-founders which drew more than 335,000 signatures. Google denied the charges, but the company stepped back from its advocacy efforts.

The Google-funded Open Internet Coalition, the tech industry-sponsored advocacy group that pushed for net neutrality four years ago, is defunct. Its website is gone and its Twitter account dormant. Google hasn’t mentioned the words “net neutrality” in a company blog post in four years.

When the head of Google Fiber, Milo Medin, recently visited the FCC, the company only would say that he “discussed Google’s continued support for a competitive environment that promotes innovation by broadband and video providers.”

Google Fiber represents one reason why the company may not want to get as involved in the net neutrality debate this time around. If the FCC were to re-regulate Internet lines, Google could find its new fiber network saddled with rules designed for copper wire networks. Those rules include possible rate regulations of lines and requirements that the company offer wholesale access to its network to competitors.

A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on the company’s net neutrality advocacy efforts.

Although Google’s lobbyists may not be publicly pushing the FCC or Congress on new net neutrality rules, the company does help fund several of the public interest groups which have been pressing for more stringent net neutrality rules, including Public Knowledge and the New America Foundation.

Startups, Entrepreneurs Try Lobbying

A group of smaller startups, activists and venture capitalists, including Union Square’s Fred Wilson and Brad Burnham, have been trying to counteract Google and other tech firms that spend heavily on Washington lobbying with letters, personal appeals and Internet-based activism.

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian collected more than $20,000 from supporters to place pro-net neutrality ads on D.C. buses in May. File-sharing service BitTorrent’s satirical website, Join the Fastlane, depicts a grim future in which consumers pay hundreds of dollars for fast-lane service.

Non-profit software company Mozilla offered its own net neutrality proposal, which the FCC has asked people to comment on, and company officials recently met with senior FCC aides to discuss the plan.

Startups and investors have also been doing more traditional FCC lobbying, meeting with Wheeler and his aides to press their case for more regulation of Internet lines.

“We think the Chairman should not focus on what’s easiest to do in Washington, D.C.”

During a June 24 meeting with the FCC’s general counsel and chief technology officer, Union Square’s Burnham and Wilson suggested the FCC re-regulate Internet lines to provide more certainty for consumers and the markets. “We explained that the investment and entrepreneur community needs far more certainty than that offered by the FCC’s proposed rule,” the investors said during their meeting.

Netflix has also been complaining loudly in meetings with the FCC (and in public) about a separate, if related, issue about how broadband providers negotiate deals with middle-mile Internet companies and content providers like Netflix, which have created their own content delivery networks.

And at a gathering in San Francisco last week in online payment company Stripe’s offices, a group of fifteen startup executives raised concerns with Wheeler about his fast-lane plan during a 90-minute meeting.

Wheeler startup meeting

Wheeler told the group that “though he believes paid prioritization arrangements are harmful, he also believes that it is politically more difficult to make rules that deem paid prioritization and other forms of discrimination unreasonable, per se,” said Automattic general counsel Paul Sieminski, in a recap of the meeting.

“We think the Chairman should not focus on what’s easiest to do in Washington, D.C. Rather, the FCC Chairman should begin with the correct policy, which is keeping access to the Internet open and neutral as it has been historically,” Sieminski wrote.

Meanwhile, comments from irate consumers continue to jam the FCC’s comment system. Thousands of comments continue to filed each week. More than 1,500 were filed on Tuesday, according to the FCC’s electronic system. The deadline for making initial comments is July 15.

Arguably, the most effective advocate for net neutrality rules so far hasn’t even a lobbyist. Comedian and HBO talk show host John Oliver jolted the FCC with a blistering 13-minute explainer last month on Wheeler’s proposal which has been seen more than 4.3 million times.

Thousands of comments poured into the agency after Oliver’s video hit YouTube, startling agency officials who aren’t used to receiving so much public feedback. Wheeler took offense at being compared to a dingo, several people inside the agency said, although he later joked about it publicly.

Oliver said the decision to appoint Wheeler, a former top cable lobbyist, as FCC Chairman, was “the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.”

*Comcast’s NBCUniversal is an investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

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