ADVICE+DISSENT:Intelligence File In the Fast Lane

Google, government and Internet of the future.

Google, government and Internet of the future.

In December, the Wall Street Journal published a fascinating and provocative news story that seemed to portend dramatic changes to how we use the Internet.

The paper reported that Google Inc. had approached major cable and phone companies-the ones that own the pipes that carry data on the Internet-about creating a "fast lane" exclusively for Google's content. Like a lot of big content providers, Google wants to make sure its users don't have to wait very long for Web pages and YouTube videos to load. The Internet is a bustling network, and with traffic growing by more than 50 percent a year, it might seem prudent and reasonable for Google to guarantee fast Internet access for its customers.

Now, if you're not familiar with the principle of Net neutrality, you'd be forgiven for missing the explosively controversial proposal that Google reportedly was offering to Internet service providers. In a nutshell, Net neutrality holds that all content providers should have equal access to the Internet, which draws its power and influence from its inherent openness. There should be no preferential treatment for anyone, regardless of how much traffic they generate. Cable and phone companies, though, own the lanes on this electronic highway, and they have to pay to expand them as traffic surges. They want content providers to share in that cost.

Google is one of the staunchest supporters of Net neutrality, and if the company were to reverse course, it could encourage other big content providers to follow suit. The Internet might look less like a free highway than a series of toll roads and high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Google says the WSJ story is off base. The company is offering to place some of its content servers at the Internet service providers' physical locations, such as their central offices. The idea is to put content closer to users so when they want to watch a video or call up a Web page, they can go straight to the server, rather than make the service provider repeatedly fetch the content on the Internet.

If this is confusing, go back to the highway analogy. Google essentially is offering to set up rest stops along highway exits, where users can get all their favorite content, rather than putting that content in a big storage facility located miles down the road. There really is a physical dimension to this, and Google thinks its proposal will save service providers time and money and reduce Internet traffic.

Google might not know it, but this engineering reflects the way intelligence and security agencies think about cybersecurity. Government wants a safer way to connect to the Internet and to transmit sensitive information. One idea floating around is to create a kind of network within the Internet, exclusively for federal use. This wouldn't be a new network. Rather, think of it as a government-only lane that is open just when there's information to send.

Otherwise, the lane is closed.

This proposal is in the notional stages. And it's one of many ideas being discussed as part of a comprehensive national cybersecurity policy. In a way, it's a lot like what Google wants to do. The company wants to redraw the lanes in the roads, bringing its users straight to Google servers. The government also wants to reengineer the highway, creating exclusive, hopefully more secure, lanes for its business. The Internet of the future, perhaps, is not a big amorphous cloud, with data skipping through servers and routers without regard for borders and lanes. Antiquated as it might seem, and perhaps laughable, the Internet really is a "series of tubes." And that model is apparently one that Google and intelligence agencies find particularly useful.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.