Commentary

Google To Enter ISP Space: Some Cheer, But Privacy Pitfalls Possible

In the net neutrality debate, telecoms have been pitted against content companies like Google ever since former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre complained that the search giant was getting a "free ride" on the telecom's pipes.

But now Google is taking Internet access issues into its own hands. The company said today that it plans to build high-speed, fiber-to-the-home broadband networks that will deliver speeds of 1 Gbps -- more than 250 times the average U.S. broadband speed of 3.9 Mbps, according to Akamai.

Google is currently searching for test communities for the project, which it expects will reach between 50,000 and 500,000 consumers. The company is also promising that the new initiative will be "open access" -- meaning that consumers will be able to choose between different service providers -- and will follow neutrality principles.

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Consumer advocates like Public Knowledge, who have argued that all ISPs should open their networks to other carriers, cheered the news. "We hope that all sectors of the telecommunications industry will work together to make the project a success, and that lessons learned on deployment, construction techniques applications will be widely shared," founder and president Gigi Sohn said in a statement.

Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski likewise praised Google's latest project, adding that the national broadband plan "will build upon such private-sector initiatives."

This test isn't the first time that Google has gotten into the ISP business. The company also runs a Wi-Fi network near Mountain View, Calif. But a plan to bring municipal Wi-Fi to San Francisco faltered.

In the past, ISPs have fought hard to prevent communities from building their own broadband networks. For instance, Time Warner and Embarq backed legislation in North Carolina that would have blocked cities from building their municipal networks. And TDS Telecommunication's Bridgewater Telephone unsuccessfully sued to prevent the town of Monticello, Minn. from financing a new network.

Google's latest project is an even greater threat to telecoms and cable companies than municipal broadband projects because Google's new fiber-optic network could be far faster than anything currently available to most consumers. At the same time, Google's initiative could end up pressuring the large ISPs to improve their own service -- and maybe opening their networks to other carriers -- regardless of the FCC's new broadband plan.

The move could also create some very thorny privacy issues for Google, which would presumably have access to customers' entire clickstream data. A Google spokesperson says the company doesn't currently plan to use that data to serve ads. He also says that if that situation changes, it would only use broadband data for advertising "with the subscriber's explicit opt-in consent."

Still, just the prospect of Google collecting and analyzing clickstream data -- in addition to ad-serving data and search data -- is bound to leave some privacy advocates at least a little more wary of the company.

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