Sunday, August 15, 2010
"We had a bunch of papers which had, like, talking points so that we could all be on the same page," explained the net neutrality activist leaning over the front seat of our chartered bus. "But we can't find them."
Laughter erupted from the rest of the vehicle. Nobody cared. It was Friday afternoon. And after all, this was San Francisco, where two or more people being on the same page about anything is a misdemeanor.
With that, a dozen or so protestors (and Ars) rode from the city's Opera Plaza to Mountain View, California, headquarters of Google, now fallen from grace since the release of its watered-down net neutrality manifesto with Verizon.
The objective—to deliver 300,000 signatures protesting the move.
"But what we do have, so that everybody will be really loud and excited and show the press how important this is, we have a few, like, rally cries," our bus captain continued. "You guys want to practice?"
We'll spare you the results. Suffice it to say that 40 minutes later we and several other caravans arrived at the Googleplex—maybe 100 people all told, plus reporters. The Save The Internet and Moveon.org staff who organized the rally kept the crowd on a grassy knoll about 20 yards south of the Google campus' main entrance.
Google will see you now
"We're here because we love the Internet and we want to keep it that way!" a speaker declared.
After about five minutes of this sort of commentary, somebody asked a sensible question. "Do we have an appointment to see Google or anything like that?"
"Yes," came the response. "We're standing outside just to let Google officials know how we feel about this deal that they have made with Verizon. We also have a whole bunch of petitions to deliver and we're going to stand outside here for about 30 minutes, kind of just making sure that they know we're here."
This didn't sit well with some of the demonstrators. The Bay Area, it should be noted, is full of activists who have years of experience laying siege to big buildings full of computers—most famously the nuclear weapons research facility Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Not surprisingly then, one attendant began pushing the envelope.
A pair of protesters outside Google headquarters
"Well, can't the rest of us just go up there?" she asked.
"It may be trespassing. I'm not sure," the main organizer explained.
"Well if it is trespassing then they have to tell us!" she shot back.
"Ok! Let's go!" the coordinator relented. War whoops (or peace whoops if you prefer) erupted from the crowd as they marched up to Google's rotunda entrance, equipped with "DON'T BE EVIL" placards and similar signs.
Representatives of the Raging Grannies were in full force, including one dressed in Victorian black and armed with a Morticia Addams umbrella.
"I'm in mourning," she explained to me—and to add effect displayed a pendant with a photograph of her Civil War era great, great grandfather.
Lack of awareness
Meanwhile security staff appeared, looking right right out of Google central casting. One officiously whizzed around the demo in a company laminated moto-tripod. Others sported bright blue Google t-shirts and rode mountain bikes while sipping bottled water.
At first they seemed nervous, but not for long. Many of the demonstrators—twenty-something web developers and content site managers—were far more interested in tweeting on their handsets then trying to get into the building.
I asked if I could speak to a Google official.
"I'm not aware of that," a security person told me.
"How about Vint Cerf. Is he there?"
"He's probably up in an airplane somewhere," somebody else replied.
Bereft of Google folk with whom to talk, I listened to James Rucker of ColorofChange.org make the big speech of the demonstration.
"The Internet has been the ground upon which we can do real work," Rucker told the crowd. "We can communicate across communities. We can hold politicians accountable. The Chairman of the FCC, Julius Genachowski, has said that he stands to protect the open Internet, but the FCC thus far has failed to secure a free and open Internet by passing rules that make it a legal reality.
"We're here because Google and Verizon have put forth a plan that while saying it protects the Internet, does quite the opposite. They're talking about producing a separate, fast lane, essentially. A higher tier for premium content, which means if you want to play in the twenty-first century Internet that is upon us, you're going to have to pay."
This observation was met with a long round of boos. The demonstrators then panned out and were interviewed by the media. Bloggers interviewed each other. One told an AM radio news talk reporter that he didn't want the Internet to become like AM radio. The reporter politely nodded and smiled.
I asked various activists if they really thought that Google would flip its position yet again based on those petitions.
"They could," one told me. "They apologized and changed course with Buzz." This referred to Google's making amends for various privacy blunders associated with the application.
Other demonstrators were more skeptical.
"I don't know how they back themselves out of this," another responded. "I don't know how they got into it. I don't understand the thinking behind it."
"Do you think the net neutrality movement can prevail without Google?" I pressed.
"I think it will be tough," he conceded. "Google has so much control over so much of the Internet. But I think Google only exists with the trust of their users. If Google does this, as much as I hate Microsoft, I might go to Bing."
"Ah, c'mon," I demanded. "How many Google apps do you have?
Gmail, Blogger, Google Voice, and an Android phone, he admitted. "I did stop using Buzz, though."
I wandered back to the main entrance and asked Rucker if he thought net neutrality can win sans Google.
"Absolutely," he bravely replied. "The FCC has the authority to reclassify broadband, which will allow them to do two things. One is actually, by law, protect net neutrality. The other is to ensure that broadband is available to communities that are currently shut out. I absolutely think we can do it without Google, but we should be able to do it with Google."
Eventually Google permitted a small team of demonstrators to carry the petitions into the building and present them to the company's policy division staff.
Delivering the petitions to Google
The search engine giant issued a brief statement in response to the plea.
"This is an important, complex issue that should be discussed," declared Google's Nicklas Lundblad, Head of Public Policy.
"But let me be clear: Google remains a fierce supporter of the open Internet. We're not expecting everyone to agree with every aspect of our proposal, but we think believe that locking in key enforceable protections for consumers is preferable to no protection."
With that, the Siege of Google concluded. We all got back on the bus and headed to the city. Somebody on the return trip asked me to answer my own questions.
The net neutrality movement can still win some of their objectives without Google, but only if other parts of the Internet content industry step in to fill the gap. Since the late 19th century, there has never been a major policy change in the communications sector that didn't happen without strong backing from some big wing of the corporate sector.
The FCC's Carterfone open device decision, the breakup of NBC in the late 1940s, or the dismantling of AT&T in the 1980s—these seismic events didn't take place solely because the equivalents of Save The Internet asked for them. They happened because a hefty chunk of corporate America wanted them.
So the question now is whether Facebook, Netflix, eBay, IAC, the gaming industry, or some combination of these forces are willing to more prominently carry the torch.
But while the folks at that demo may have lost an ally in Google, Google has lost something too—the public as a resource.
The company now faces two potentially devastating legal challenges. Undaunted by its recent defeat in a district court, Viacom has pushed its billion-dollar infringement suit against YouTube up the appeals court ladder.
And in a move with huge implications for the open source cause, Oracle is suing Google for allegedly infringing on Java technology patents in its Android operating system.
If these lawsuits start getting too close for Google's comfort, the firm might want to do what it has so often done in the past—appeal to the public for support in the form of new federal agency rules or legislation, as it did with white space broadband devices.
That would have been an easy move for Google two weeks ago. Now the prospects for those kind of campaigns are far less clear.
Posted by Blog Official Web World Friend Indonesia at 12:58 AM