Google has an unofficial corporate motto, "Don't Be Evil" coined by a founding employee at a meeting back in 2001 when the fledgling company was poised to explode. At the time Google was looking to create a different kind of corporate culture and identity in the market, vastly different than other software companies that were notorious for dysfunctional workplaces and being jerks to their customers.
For the most part it's a motto that has worked. Google workers are, by all accounts, happy and productive people who are encouraged to express their creativity by dedicating about 20 per cent of their work time to special projects that interest them. Gmail, Google Docs, Google Voice, Google Reader and Google Wave are some excellent examples of how this 80/20 rule has paid off. The truth is, few companies have innovated as widely as Google, which is why it's such a valuable property.
On the consumer side I generally have nothing bad to say about Google - their products work, they work well and I use them. I wouldn't trade Firefox for Chrome and I'm not a Picasa guy, but I genuinely like most of what this company does.
So it came as a bit of a surprise lately when Google and Verizon got together to propose a regulation to the Federal Communications Commission that is a jab in the eye of net neutrality - essentially defined as equal web at equal speeds for users and content providers.
In their proposal, dubbed "Googlezon" by its detractors, the companies do pay some lip service to net neutrality by pledging to keep something called the "public internet" completely neutral, without going into any detail as to what that actually means.
Private Internet is a different concept, as some sites are obviously for members only, offer paid content, sell goods and/or services, are hosted by a for-profit company or operated expressly for profit. And it seems Google and Verizon are creating what amounts to a tiered Internet where some users and content providers would be asked to pay more to get full and faster access.
For example, you'd be able to access the Internet as usual until you went to a site like Netflix or Armor Games that require a fair amount of broadband on both sides. In that case, those companies and their customers would be expected to pay Verizon and Google more in exchange for better service. While peons would still be able to visit those sites, they wouldn't benefit from a premium level of service that would reward you with faster content.
"What's the problem?" you might be asking yourself. "If people want to pay an extra $10 a month for this, then let them pay. It's a free world and a free market."
But consider what happens in the future with HTML 5 and the promise of enhanced gaming, embedded rich content and other upgrades to the browsing experience. We could run into a scenario where users who don't pay a premium may not be able to access certain sites and certain content at all, which is a betrayal of everything the Internet has stood for since it entered the public domain.
What will this mean for innovation and the ability of small startups to compete with bigger companies that can afford to pay the gatekeepers? What does it mean for websites that may publish content that the gatekeepers don't like or that are critical of the gatekeepers themselves?
Google presumably wouldn't charge itself to broadcast videos on YouTube, but would they give the same free ride to Vimeo and other video sites to ensure the playing field remains level? Could Google and Verizon use this proposal - which both companies plan to implement regardless of the federal government's permission - to choke out competitors?
One of the most alarming aspects of Googlezon is the way that this proposal is to be implemented for smart phones. According to Google and Verizon the so-called "public internet" does not exist for mobile devices and your access to the web will be determined by your carrier. This prevents people from using the online software and websites of their choice, and basically turns the web into a series of paid or free (with advertising) apps for mobile customers.
While Google and Verizon are pledging transparency in terms of who they block, who they throttle and who they privilege, it's besides the point. Who really has the time to research all of that data when they buy a phone?
None of this applies specifically to Canada at this point, but it's really just a matter of time. This is precisely the reason why we need standard, international laws enforcing net neutrality.
Let's hope that Google reconsiders - if not their proposal with Verizon, then at least their unofficial corporate motto. "Don't be evil," my ass.