So I did my 6th or 7th or 8th staff briefing on NN today in front of the Senate Commerce Committee staff. It was very well attended and as usual, the staff asked very intelligent questions, some of which I had heard before. One which I had not heard previously caught my attention – the staffer asked whether, if we require broadband network providers not to discriminate in favor of content, applications and services in which they have a financial interest, should we not require the same from search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN? The reasoning goes like this – just like there are two dominant broadband network providers, there are two, maybe three dominant search engines, so shouldn't the latter be required to be neutral in their searches and sponsored links as well?
Most of us public interest advocates were puzzled at first – sounds like a good idea, right? But Harold Feld of the Media Access Project gave the right answer – while Google and Yahoo may be the most popular search engines, there are many others to choose from, unlike the market for broadband network providers, which for the vast majority of Americans, consists of telephone and cable companies, and no one else. There is also nothing prohibiting a new search engine from starting – remember that only a few years ago, only a handful of cool Netizens used Google. Conversely, there are numerous obstacles to becoming a broadband network provider – hence the dynamic duopoly that we now have.
Finally, the cost of switching from one search engine to another is zero, while the cost of switching broadband network providers, should one discriminate (assuming you even have a choice) can be very high, particularly if you are bound for a term of months or years by a service contract. This cost goes up even more if you have several communications services (telephone, cable and Internet) bundled together.
Of course, this question is typical of NN opponents' attempts to steer the spotlight away from their plans to discriminate and place it on online companies. At the risk of mixing metaphors, that Red Herring won't hunt.