The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Google’s Alphabet restructuring helps protect the Web as we know it

(David Goldman/AP)

When Google announced it was restructuring itself as Alphabet, a few things happened. One, Google got a little more focused as all of its non-core businesses, like Google X, got spun off into their own firms. Two, Alphabet became the big parent company overseeing them all.

And three, Google insulated itself from what conservative critics have long warned would happen as a result of the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules — the regulation of Web sites like Gmail, Google search and Maps. This may be pure coincidence. But it nevertheless has gotten the Internet industry's attention, because it plays into a dispute over the meaning of net neutrality for businesses everywhere.

Could the FCC's rules eventually allow the government to regulate Internet content, not just the pipes it runs on? Democrats on the commission say it would never happen. Republicans, meanwhile, say there's no guarantee that a future FCC won't be tempted to impose itself on Internet companies.

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Setting aside for a moment that it would probably be political suicide to do so, here's how the regulation could have occurred as long as Google Fiber remained part of Google. The FCC's net neutrality rules classify companies that provide access to high-speed Internet as "telecommunications services." Google Fiber is considered just such a service — and by extension, so was Google at the time the rules went into effect.

Google declined to comment.

This made Google and all its Web apps theoretically subject to many of the regulations that the FCC applies to phone companies, such as its privacy rules. You can see where this is headed: On Thursday, I explained how it could shape what Internet providers do with the data we generate when we visit Web sites, click on links and view advertisements.

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As an Internet provider, Google could have been covered by these federal regulations. Now that Google Fiber is separate from Google, however, it reduces what risk there was (it's hard to say just how concrete or hypothetical the risk was, because we haven't really seen the FCC try to flex its net neutrality muscles yet). If the FCC wants to try to use its new telecommunications powers over Internet providers to regulate Internet content, it'll have to make an example out of some other company, not Google.

It's possible that Google anticipated Republicans' concerns with net neutrality, and took preemptive action to protect itself. But we have no indication of that.

Some industry officials believe that Google could still be regulated by the FCC in other ways. Agency critics argued this week at an industry conference in Aspen, Colo., that the FCC's existing authority over "information services" could be interpreted as a kind of power to regulate Internet companies. That theory has never been tested, however.

The key here is that, whether it meant to or not, Google made it harder for the FCC to use its powers over telecom companies as a backdoor to regulating actual Web sites.