The celebrated openness of the Internet -- network providers are not supposed to give preferential treatment to any traffic -- is quietly losing powerful defenders.
Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.
At risk is a principle known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same -- nobody is supposed to jump the line.
But phone and cable companies argue that Internet content providers should share in their network costs, particularly with Internet traffic growing by more than 50% annually, according to estimates. Carriers say that to keep up with surging traffic, driven mainly by the proliferation of online video, they need to boost revenue to upgrade their networks. Charging companies for fast lanes is one option.
One major cable operator in talks with Google says it has been reluctant so far to strike a deal because of concern it might violate Federal Communications Commission guidelines on network neutrality.
"If we did this, Washington would be on fire," says one executive at the cable company who is familiar with the talks, referring to the likely reaction of regulators and lawmakers.
Separately, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. have withdrawn quietly from a coalition formed two years ago to protect network neutrality. Each company has forged partnerships with the phone and cable companies. In addition, prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject.
The contentious issue has wide ramifications for the Internet as a platform for new businesses. If companies like Google succeed in negotiating preferential treatment, the Internet could become a place where wealthy companies get faster and easier access to the Web than less affluent ones, according to advocates of network neutrality. That could choke off competition, they say.
For computer users, it could mean that Web sites by companies not able to strike fast-lane deals will respond more slowly than those by companies able to pay. In the worst-case scenario, the Internet could become a medium where large companies, such as Comcast Corp. in cable television, would control both distribution and content -- and much of what users can access, according to neutrality advocates.
The developments could test Mr. Obama's professed commitment to network neutrality. "The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history, and we have to keep it that way," he told Google employees a year ago at the company's Mountain View, Calif., campus. "I will take a back seat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality."
But Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law professor at Stanford University and an influential proponent of network neutrality, recently shifted gears by saying at a conference that content providers should be able to pay for faster service. Mr. Lessig, who has known President-elect Barack Obama since their days teaching law at the University of Chicago, has been mentioned as a candidate to head the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the telecommunications industry.
The shifting positions concern some purists. "What they're talking about is selling you the right to skip ahead in the line," says Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, a Washington-based advocacy group. "It would mean the first part of your business plan would be a deal with AT&T to get into their super-tier -- that is anathema to a culture of innovation."
Advocates of network neutrality believe it has helped the Internet drive the technology revolution of the past two decades, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The concept of network neutrality originated with the phone business. The nation's longtime telephone monopoly, nicknamed Ma Bell, and its regional successors were prohibited from giving any public phone call preference in how quickly it was connected. When the Internet first boomed in the 1990s, content largely traveled via telephone line, and the rule survived by default.
The carriers picked up the unflattering nickname "dumbpipes," underscoring their strict noninterference in the Internet traffic surging over their networks. The name heightened resentment among the carriers toward the soaring wealth of the content providers, such as Amazon.com Inc., that couldn't exist without the networks of the telecom and cable companies.
In August 2005, amid a deregulatory environment, the FCC weakened network neutrality to a set of four "guiding principles." The step had the effect of making the FCC's power to enforce network neutrality subject to interpretation, emboldening those looking for ways around it.
Stirring the waters further, major phone companies including AT&T and Verizon announced they intended to create new fast lanes on the Internet -- and would charge content companies a toll to use it. They claimed Internet companies had been getting a free ride.
That unleashed a firestorm of criticism. A diverse group including Internet companies Google, Microsoft and Amazon joined the likes of the Christian Coalition, the National Rifle Association and the pop singer Moby in what they characterized as a fight to "save the Internet." The coalition claimed such steps could endanger freedom of speech.
Advocates of network neutrality also claimed that dismantling the rule would be the first step toward distributors gaining control over content, since they could dictate traffic according to fees charged to content providers. The fortunes of a certain Web site, in other words, might depend on how much it could pay network providers, rather than on its popularity.
That concern would grow if the carriers themselves offer content, which some have tried, with mixed success. AT&T, the country's largest broadband provider, recently launched its own online video service, called VideoCrawler, to compete with YouTube and others.
"One way AT&T can win that competition is to give their own video service preferential treatment on their network," says Robert Topolski, a networking engineer based in Portland, Ore. An AT&T spokesman says the company has no plans to give VideoCrawler preferential treatment on its network.
Mr. Topolski discovered that Comcast was slowing a video file-sharing service called BitTorrent. That discovery eventually led to sanctions against Comcast by the FCC. Comcast has appealed the decision, arguing the FCC did not have the authority to make such a ruling.
In 2006, Microsoft felt strongly enough about the issue that it wrote Congress to declare that saving network neutrality "could dictate whether the U.S. will continue to lead the world in Internet-related technologies."
The debate eventually reached a stalemate. Legislation to codify network neutrality failed to pass, and carriers backed off their plans for a tiered Internet.
During his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama spoke frequently about the Internet, which was a critical tool in his grass-roots effort to reach new voters, and the importance of network neutrality. "Once providers start to give privilege to some Web sites and applications over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out," he told Google employees a year ago when he campaigned at the company. "And then we all lose."
But some of those who advise the new president on technology have changed their view on network neutrality. Stanford's Mr. Lessig, for one, has softened his opposition to variable service tiers. At a conference, he argued that carriers won't become kingmakers so long as the faster service at a higher price is available to anyone willing to pay it.
"There are good reasons to be able to prioritize traffic," Mr. Lessig said later in an interview. "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."
Some telecom experts say that broadband is the most profitable service offered by phone and cable companies, and they are simply trying to offset declining revenue from their traditional phone business.
In the two years since Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other Internet companies lined up in favor of network neutrality, the landscape has changed. The Internet companies have formed partnerships with phone and cable companies, making them more dependent on one another.
Microsoft, which appealed to Congress to save network neutrality just two years ago, has changed its position completely. "Network neutrality is a policy avenue the company is no longer pursuing," Microsoft said in a statement. The Redmond, Wash., software giant now favors legislation to allow network operators to offer different tiers of service to content companies.
Microsoft has a deal to provide software for AT&T's Internet television service. A Microsoft spokesman declined to comment whether this arrangement affected the company's position on network neutrality.
Amazon's popular digital-reading device, called the Kindle, offers a dedicated, faster download service, an arrangement Amazon has with Sprint. That has prompted questions in the blogosphere about whether the service violates network neutrality.
"Amazon continues to support adoption of net neutrality rules to protect the longstanding, fundamental openness of the Internet," Amazon said in a statement. It declined to elaborate on its Kindle arrangement.
Amazon had withdrawn from the coalition of companies supporting net neutrality, but it recently was listed once again on the group's Web site. It declined to comment on whether carriers should be allowed to prioritize traffic.
Yahoo now has a digital subscriber-line partnership with AT&T. Some have speculated that the deal has caused Yahoo to go silent on the network-neutrality issue.
An AT&T spokesman said the company should be able to strike any deal it sees fit with content companies. Yahoo said in a statement that carriers and content companies "should find a consensus on how best to ensure that Americans have access to a world-class Internet."
Google, with its dominant market position and its perceived ties to the Obama team, may hold the most sway. One of President-elect Obama's most visible supporters during the campaign was Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive officer. Mr. Schmidt remains an adviser during the transition.
Google's proposed arrangement with network providers, internally called OpenEdge, would place Google servers directly within the network of the service providers, according to documents reviewed by the Journal. The setup would accelerate Google's service for users. Google has asked the providers it has approached not to talk about the idea, according to people familiar with the plans.
Asked about OpenEdge, Google said only that other companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft could strike similar deals if they desired. But Google's move, if successful, would give it an advantage available to very few.
The matter could come to a head quickly. In approving AT&T's 2006 acquisition of Bell South, the FCC made AT&T agree to shelve plans for a fast lane for 30 months. That moratorium expires in the middle of next year. A Democratic lawmaker has already promised new network-neutrality legislation early in 2009. And a new chairman of the FCC could take a stricter position on forcing companies to comply with network neutrality.
Richard Whitt, Google's head of public affairs, denies the company's proposal would violate network neutrality. Nevertheless, he says he's unsure how committed President-elect Obama will remain to the principle.
"If you look at his plans," says Mr. Whitt, "they are much less specific than they were before."