While Google's (GOOG) stance on the public policy issue of net neutrality has shifted back and forth somewhat over the years, it has primarily been a supporter of net neutrality. Outside of taking a strong public stance in conjunction with Verizon (VZ) in 2010, however, Google has largely remained relatively silent on the issue as compared to some other Internet companies, such as Netflix (NFLX) and Comcast (CMCSA).
The Net Neutrality Controversy
Net neutrality is an issue that rose to the forefront just after the turn of the century, and it has been the subject of considerable debate ever since. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has gone back and forth in considering the issue and proposing regulations and legislation. In February 2015, the FCC declared the Internet a public utility and placed net neutrality into effect. That decision was overturned just two years later.
The issue appears simple enough on the surface, but it involves complexities that arise from the very complexity of the Internet itself. Essentially, "net neutrality" refers to adhering to the policy of no Internet service provider (ISP) giving preferential treatment of any kind, either in terms of slowing down or speeding up transmission of any specific Internet traffic. This is a simple idea that appears to be in the best interests of Internet users. Obviously, when a user clicks on a link – any link – they don't want to be subject to the ISP deciding how slowly or quickly it's connected.
What primarily complicates the issue is heavy-bandwidth Internet traffic, such as videos transmitted by Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and similar companies. The Internet is not an invisible, wireless infrastructure; it depends on an extensive network of underground fiber optic cables. Fiber optic cable networks have a fixed capacity and cost billions to install and hundreds of millions just to upgrade. As Internet traffic has expanded massively over the years, ISPs have to make substantial capital expenditures to keep up with increased demands, continually expanding and upgrading the network of underground cables.
Many of the main U.S. ISPs, such as Comcast, have argued against net neutrality, making the case that since they have to make substantial investments to provide efficient transmission for heavy bandwidth users such as Netflix, they ought to be allowed to charge such companies for fast-lane Internet access. Additionally, they argue that being allowed to charge for differential levels of service would help to fuel reinvestment and innovation in the industry, and that net neutrality policies will effectively stifle such innovation and potential service expansion and improvement.
Another objection to net neutrality exists among the general public beyond the Internet industry. This objection is that while net neutrality may appear innocent and well-meaning enough on the surface, it is really just another disingenuous euphemism for increased government control that may eventually lead to additional taxation.
Google's Net Neutrality Statements
Google definitely has a vested interest in the issue with the formation of Google Fiber, a broadband Internet and TV service company, boosting it further into the ranks of the major ISPs. Google's initial public statements regarding net neutrality, around 2006, were clearly in favor of the policy. It shifted its official position, at least in part, in 2010 when it partnered with Verizon in strongly arguing that net neutrality regulations should not be applied to wireless carriers. At the time, Verizon and Google won their case, with the FCC allowing wireless carriers to discriminate against third-party applications.
Since 2010, Google has largely been silent in the ongoing net neutrality debate. However, in 2014, it did sent out a message to all of its "Take Action" subscribers strongly supporting net neutrality and advocating that the FCC enforce net neutrality rules. The company's statement went so far as to contradict, or reverse, its 2010 position, saying that net neutrality should extend to wireless carriers.
In November 2017, Google did make a statement as FCC's push for a policy reversal gathered steam. "The FCC’s net neutrality rules are working well for consumers, and we’re disappointed in the proposal released today," the statement said. However, it was absent from an open letter many Internet pioneers, including Steve Wozniak, sent to the FCC and Senate and House Committees on Communications and Technology. (For more analysis on Google, read Who are Google's Main competitors?)