Did Google abandon net neutrality?

As a former Google employee, I always took the “Don’t Be Evil” mantra as a sincere gesture to be taken with a grain of salt.  The slogan was a reminder of the company’s humble and idealistic beginnings, but not an iron-clad indication of its post-IPO mindset.  After all, a corporation open to accommodating censorship in China is willing to put practical limits on principles that hit the bottom line too hard.

Many long-time Google advocates were surprised and disappointed with last week’s Google/Verizon net neutrality proposal, and I was among them.  While the company defends the move as a necessary practical decision given political realities, it in many ways marks the completion of Google’s gradual transition from wunderkind start-up to new-millennium corporate superpower.   Google first laid the groundwork for policy collaboration with Verizon in a joint October 2009 blog posting titled “Finding Common Ground On An Open Internet.” At that point Google was quick to highlight philosophical differences, stating that “while Google supports light touch regulation, it believes that safeguards are needed to combat the incentives for carriers to pick winners and losers online.”

However, with a recent court ruling that the FCC over-reached in protecting net neutrality, Google has determined that compromise is the only solution and that neutrality on wireless connections is a sacrifice worth making.

The Google/Verizon proposal endorses safeguarding neutrality on landlines while wireless would remain largely unregulated and open to tiered pricing practices by internet service providers.  In this scenario, ISPs like Verizon are free to charge content providers varying rates for delivery speeds. This approach could be hobbling for new start-ups that can’t afford the premium service afforded by established companies.  Google’s own success is due in part to flourishing in an open internet where start-ups operated on an even playing field with bigger corporations.

From a purely business stand point, Google is arguably making a smart move.  With an ally like Verizon and an array of wireless Android phones and tablets rumoured to flood the market in the coming years, Google is positioned to benefit from non-neutrality in a way it was not a few years ago.  It’s also safe to say that only a small base of tech-minded Google users are likely to cry treason and take their business to Bing.  Last week’s rally at Google headquarters was largely ignored by the mainstream media and the general public doesn’t seem clued in to the neutrality issue.

But despite Google’s insistence to the contrary, this move represents economic pragmatism and unequivocal abandonment of core principles.  Still, labeling Google “evil” as protesters are doing, takes the argument too far and ignores the complexity of the company’s character and inherent challenge of balancing values and shareholder demands. After all, the company is still a trailblazing force for corporate good in areas like alternative energy.  But for those who viewed Google as a magical land of free lunches and Foosball, where good always beats evil— this is a reminder that no company can be infallible.