Tuesday's a big day for net neutrality: Members of the general public have until then to weigh in before the Federal Communications Commission kicks off a period for reply comments.
The comments — some 650,000 have been filed so far, according to the FCC — are an important part of the process; they'll help the agency gauge appetite for adopting certain rules and regulations. So far, though, there's been one notable voice missing from the official debate about how to treat Internet traffic, and that's Google's.
As Re/code's Amy Schatz pointed out recently, Google was a major player on net neutrality years ago when the policy was first being hashed out. Now, it's almost nowhere to be seen. Some analysts speculate that Google is wary to join the fray because of its growing interest in Google Fiber, the company's ISP that would be subject to whatever rules the FCC comes up with.
Others believe Google is fearful of the potential for regulatory overreach. When a federal court this year told the FCC that its existing net neutrality rules couldn't stand, it gave the commission another way out — using a different part of the law known as Section 706 of the Communications Act. Critics of the FCC worry that there's nothing in Section 706 that prevents the FCC from extending those rules to Web companies if it chose. If that's the case, Google might be worried about that for good reason.
But Google isn't exactly sitting on its hands, either. It's taking a more oblique approach to the Washington game — like speaking through industry groups. On Monday, the Internet Association, one of Silicon Valley's top lobbying organizations, wrote to the FCC that its current proposal for net neutrality would "[shift] the balance from the consumers' freedom of choice to the broadband Internet access providers' gatekeeping decisions."
(Notably, though, the Internet Association's filing doesn't recommend that the FCC reclassify the Internet as a utility and treat broadband companies like telephone companies — a move that net neutrality supporters have been calling for despite some lingering, unaddressed holes in that argument. Added pressure for reclassification is now coming from powerful members of Congress in the hours before the deadline.)
Google has also, like Netflix, begun shaming Internet providers that it perceives as laggards in the video streaming department. As part of that effort, Google is taking pains to point out that if there's congestion at your ISP's doorstep, the data YouTube's deposited there will be prevented from getting to you smoothly.
That part of the debate, known as "interconnection," is related to — but technically separate from — the net neutrality issue.
Nevertheless, it's clear Google hasn't completely disengaged from issues of Internet policy. It's simply grown more selective in its battles, and perhaps a little more ninja-like in the way it fights them. From patents to privacy to free speech and IT security, Google is a highly visible participant in the rough-and-tumble of the nation's capital — an impression that's only gotten more serious since the company moved its D.C. offices closer to Capitol Hill earlier this year.
Negotiating these priorities requires maneuvering room. So yes, Google's silence on net neutrality may signal where its economic interests lie. But it probably also has something to do with the company's evolving relationship with Washington, which is growing ever more complex.