When the FCC devised new rules for some cell phone carriers this week there was an 800 lb. search engine in the room. Why would Google want to free you from your restrictive cell phone contract? Media professor Siva Vaidhyanathan explains how the internet giant is following the web wherever it leads.
CHRIS BANNON: If you’ve ever been frustrated that your cell phone carrier locks you into a contract for years, tying you to certain phones and services, you might be pleased to know that Google feels your pain, so much so, in fact, that they’ve spent months lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to end current restrictions that cell carriers place upon their customers.
Why? Partly timing. On Tuesday the FCC set the terms for auctioning a rare and valuable piece of spectrum that’s well-suited to cell phone service. And partly self-interest. Google saw in the auction a chance to establish new rules that will safeguard future cell phone access to services like – Google.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of Media Studies in Law at the University of Virginia, says that this may be one of those cases where what’s good for Google may also be good for consumers. SIVA VAIDHYNATHAN: As broadcasters have moved from analog parts of the spectrum to digital parts of the spectrum, they freed up a tremendous amount of potential space for new ventures.
The FCC was established to make sure that too many competitors wouldn’t try to muscle in on specific areas of the spectrum, causing white noise everywhere. Time after time, over many decades, the FCC has instead played into the interests of the most powerful players in a particular market, whether that is FM radio or network television, or in this case, the major mobile phone carriers. CHRIS BANNON: This time around, Google was a high-profile addition to the debate. What does Google stand to gain from a change in the rules? SIVA VAIDHYNATHAN: Well I don’t think that Google necessarily wants to be in the mobile phone business, and if it does, it certainly doesn’t want to do it any time soon.
What Google wants is more openness in this environment. Steadily over the next 10 to 15 years, we are going to be moving more and more of our activities to these mobile boxes that sit in our pockets, rather than these big hunks of plastic that sit on our desks.
Now, if you have a phone that does a variety of things, you know that you’re limited. The web browser you use is the one that comes with the phone, and you can’t change it. The number of websites you can look at is pretty limited by the device you use; the email service you use is delineated by the device you use.
All of those things are built into the architecture of the device. What Google ultimately wants out of the mobile phone world, is openness and adaptability and they were using this spectrum auction to make that point.
I’m pleased that Google’s action in this auction has made Americans all over the place realize that we have a ridiculous and anti-competitive system, and that we could have a much more efficient, effective and creative market place. CHRIS BANNON: So let’s go to the decision that was made on Tuesday. It’s not entirely a big bold step forward into open access, is it? SIVA VAIDHYNATHAN: It was clearly a compromise, and it’s really hard to say what that’s going to do for consumers in the short term. Google wanted a very strong statement on openness and what they wanted the FCC to do was require whomever won the auction to open up their services to allow for their devices to be easily adaptable and changeable. That didn’t quite go through. CHRIS BANNON: So how good are they at moving politicians in Washington? Would you judge them a successful lobbying organization? SIVA VAIDHYNATHAN: Google has only recently even started playing the game in Washington. Google for the longest time did not have, you know, a full time lobbyist. Only in the last couple of years they’ve hired a staff in Washington, and have been aggressive, but even when they’ve been aggressive, they’ve done it in their own style.
So this is interesting ‘cause it’s kind of like what Microsoft went through 10 years ago when Microsoft, all of a sudden, found itself in big trouble with the Justice department for anti-competitive behavior.
They managed to, in remarkably short time, become a big influence on the Hill. The current Republican administration has made sure that Microsoft’s been happy in a variety of ways as well.
Now, as I said, Google likes to do things its own way. As of today, Google was not able to nail down all that it wanted, but Google has changed the debate, at least at the FCC and probably throughout Washington, for a number of years. From now on, we will be asking, why not build open networks? And those who want to build closed networks are going to have to justify themselves.
So Google probably lost the battle. Google might still have won the war. CHRIS BANNON: Siva, thanks very much. SIVA VAIDHYNATHAN: Thank you. CHRIS BANNON: Siva Vaidhynathan is a professor of Media Studies in Law at the University of Virginia and author of the upcoming The Googleization of Everything. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up — no more alien babies or Elvis sightings on supermarket checkout lines. We'll miss you, Weekly World News. CHRIS BANNON: This is On the Media from NPR.