In the late 90s and early 2000s internet service providers, saddled with traffic increasing at a rate of 50 percent a year, and customers' never ending thirst for faster connections cooked up a clever way to deliver faster content while making money. Rather than the classic internet serving setup, which ISPs liken to "dumb pipes", they would smarten the system, charging web site owners premium fees if they wanted faster serving.
However, the scheme's dark side was quickly revealed as people came to realize that ISPs were like to cut speeds on the non-premium traffic, limiting people's access to smaller websites and creating a digital bus lane. Big companies like Microsoft, Google, and others as well as celebrities like Moby blasted the move and took their fight to Congress. Net neutrality laws were passed banning such preferential treatment.
Now some of the ISP have warmed up to the Federal Communication Commission's net neutrality measures, with AT&T and Verizon agreeing that the net neutrality is working.
Ironically just as the ISPs begin to come around, support for the movement may be drying up among its biggest corporate proponents.
Yahoo and Microsoft, which long had a net neutrality alliance together, announced that they were dropping the alliance. While the move could be seen as a result of the increased frustrations between the two firms, both firms have also softened their stance on net neutrality in recent weeks, expressing, according to some sources that they might be open to the idea of internet "priority lanes".
However, the most shocking fall of all may be coming from net neutrality chief Google. Google has approached telecoms with a proposal called OpenEdge, which will involve Google paying them a fee to place its own servers at their sites, to deliver faster connections to Google sites such as its search, YouTube, and Picassa. Sounds rather familiar to something, eh?
Yes, Google's plan sounds remarkably like a direct violation of net neutrality, as pointed out in a report by the Wall Street Journal. With its plans Google is clearly saying "do as we say, not as we do" according to many skeptics. According to the WSJ report even telecoms were alarmed by Google's proposal. They told Google they were concerned that they feared its plan would violate FCC laws and regulations on net neutrality. Said one cable executive familiar with the talks, "If we did this, Washington would be on fire."
Speaking of Washington, a key proponent of net neutrality, Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law professor at Stanford University, has also turned his back on net neutrality. Professor Lessig, a close friend of President-elect Barack Obama, is rumored to be under consideration to be the next FCC chief. In an interview he recently remarked, "There are good reasons to be able to prioritize traffic. If everyone had to pay the same rates for postal service, than you wouldn't be able to differentiate between sending a greeting card to your grandma versus sending an overnight letter to your lawyer."
If he is put in such a position he and his new stance may come into direct conflict with the President-elect and be an early test of the President-elect's determination to stick with his beliefs. Barack Obama has pledged to maintain net neutrality as part of his tech agenda. He had said during a campaign speech in Google's hometown of Mountain View, "The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history, and we have to keep it that way. I will take a back seat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality."
However, in the end even Obama may be swayed if his close supporters like Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, change their minds.
For now Google is insisting it still supports net neutrality. It blasted back against negative reports about OpenEdge, insisting it is not violating net neutrality and is doing nothing wrong. It points out the use of Edge servers is already done through companies that charge expensive fees to speed up traffic, through content delivery networks (CDNs) such as Akamai, Limelight and others. It insists this practice is not tantamount to a violation of net neutrality.
Whether you believe Google or not, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the winds seem to be shifting and net neutrality seems to be losing its base of support. Where this road will lead remains to be seen, but it appears that many former net neutrality stalwarts are turning to the dark side at a surprising rate.