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Washington - Google, once boastful that it was the leading defender of a free and open Internet, has gone into the shadows.

Since the Federal Communications Commission proposed in May to let cable and telephone companies offer special Internet fast lanes for companies willing to pay extra, lobbyists for Google haven’t visited the agency to intervene, FCC records show.

Facebook, the largest social network, also has been absent.

It’s a stark change from eight years ago, when Google ran advertisements that called for treating all Web traffic equally, asked its users to contact senators on the issue and dispatched co-founder Sergey Brin to Washington to lobby lawmakers.

“They’ve definitely faded into the background, and that’s very troubling,” said Paul Sieminski, general counsel of San Francisco-based Automattic Inc., the publisher of the WordPress blogging platform.

“A lot of tech companies look to Google.”

An erosion of equality for all Web traffic has the potential to entrench large companies that have staked their turf on the Internet, while making it harder for startups to gain an audience.

For a company like Google that started in a suburban California garage in 1998 only to become the world’s largest Internet search provider with $60 billion in revenue last year, there isn’t as much incentive to fight.

“Net neutrality got them where they are,” said Timothy Wu, a Columbia University law professor in New York who supports open-Internet rules.

“There’s a danger that they, having climbed the ladder, might pull it up after them.”


Little Guys


Google and Facebook are “quiet and they’re not spending much” to ensure Internet providers treat all Web traffic equally, Wu said.

With Google, Facebook and other technology giants taking a more passive approach, nascent Internet companies and their financial backers are leading the campaign to quash the FCC’s proposal and bolster agency authority over Web traffic.

They’re the ones that have an ongoing interest in the little guys being able to enter the market,” said Nick Grossman, general manager for policy and outreach at Union Square Ventures, a New York-based venture capital firm.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in May won initial approval for rules that could let Internet-service providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon Communications charge more for fast passage over their lines.

The proposal, which includes prohibitions on blocking traffic, would replace rules voided by a court that said the FCC failed to claim the proper authority.


‘Grave Threat’


The FCC has asked for comments by July 15 and again in September, and the proposal can be modified until a final vote later this year.

The rules have attracted more than 600,000 comments to the FCC’s website, including some filed after HBO’s John Oliver told his television audience “the Internet in its current form is not broken, and the FCC is currently taking steps to fix that.”

Google hasn’t publicly addressed the rules since the FCC’s May 15 vote.

In a May 7 letter, Google and more than 140 software, social-media and technology companies said Wheeler’s fast-lane proposal would be “a grave threat to the Internet.”

Two Google executives met June 12 with Wheeler and an aide, and the discussion centered on the Mountain View, California- based company’s Google Fiber high-speed network, according to a disclosure filing.

The executives “discussed Google’s continued support for a competitive environment that promotes innovation by broadband and video providers,” the filing shows.

Google isn’t commenting on the issue beyond the May 7 letter, Niki Christoff, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.


Deterring Investment


“Facebook has always been supportive of net neutrality principles and committed to advancing a free and open Internet,” Jodi Seth, a Washington-based spokeswoman, said by e-mail.

“We will continue to work with others in the industry to ensure adoption of rules that will protect the open Internet.”

AT&T, Verizon and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a Washington-based trade group with members including Comcast, told the FCC in filings they support allowing individual deals between carriers and Web companies.

Some congressional Democrats as well as Web startups and advocacy groups have backed the idea of the FCC asserting authority to regulate Web services like a utility.

Internet service carriers and allies including Republican lawmakers have said such a move would deter investment.

Google had been much more vocal on the issue from 2006 to 2010, a period of congressional and FCC ferment that concluded with the agency adopting open-Internet rules.

Those regulations were stricken in February of this year by an appeals court, which has led to the current proposal from Wheeler.


Public Face


“They were the face of net neutrality until the summer of 2010; that’s when they pulled back,” Paul Gallant, a Washington-based analyst with Guggenheim Securities LLC, said in an interview.

Google still holds that “the same logic that controlled then, controls now -- ‘we still support it, we’re just not going to put our name out aggressively because it’s unhelpful to our strategic relationship.’”

It was a different tune in June 2006 when Eric Schmidt, then Google’s chief executive officer, sent a letter backing open-Internet rules to bloggers using the company’s service.

In February 2008 a Google lawyer held a conference call to comment on the open-Internet legislation that later failed.

“Google has been the leading corporate voice on the issue of network neutrality over the past five years,” Richard Whitt, the company’s telecommunications and media counsel, said in a blog post in August 2010.


Smartphone Deal


Whitt was defending a joint proposal with Verizon that offered rules from which mobile service was excluded.

In 2009, Verizon and Google struck a deal to develop and sell smartphones using Google’s Android operating system.

Google hasn’t gone completely silent.

It and Facebook are members of the Internet Association, which in April urged the FCC to adopt open-Internet rules.

“We’ve been vocal on calling on the FCC to have enforceable rules, and to have strong net neutrality,” Michael Beckerman, the group’s president, said in an interview.

“That’s making sure the next generation of Internet companies has the same chance our companies did.”

Members of the Washington-based group also include EBay, and Yahoo!.

Wheeler’s proposal falls short of reserving the authority the rules would need to survive legal challenges, and the fast-lane proposal threatens to let big companies buy superior access, crowding out small startups, according to Union Square Ventures’ Grossman.

Startup financiers, including Ron Conway and Om Malik, told Wheeler in a May 8 letter that the Internet “will no longer be a level playing field” if established companies can buy faster speeds.

Althea Erickson, public policy director for the New York-based online handicraft marketplace Etsy, said there is a lot of concern among her peers.

“There’s really no way we could afford to pay for priority access,” Erickson said in an interview. - Bloomberg News