Google has approached US cable companies and telcos, proposing they create a 'fast lane' for Google's own content, according to The Wall Street Journal on Sunday.
This is reversal of Google's previously stated goal of defending the principle of equal access for all content providers, known as network neutrality. It is a hangover from the days of voice-only networks when no telephone number was allowed preferential treatment over another. By default, it became a tenet of the internet as a mass medium, but the WSJ says, "[net neutrality] is quietly losing powerful defenders".
If the US makes any move to abandon network neutrality, it will bring it into direct confrontation with the European Union, whose commissioner in charge of telecoms, Viviane Reding, is whole-heartedly in support of it - as her speech in September showed.
Microsoft and Yahoo have sereptiously withdrawn from the coalition formed two years ago to protect network neutrality and forged relationships with telcos and cable companies the WSJ says.
Phone and cable network operators have long argued that internet content providers should be obliged to share in their operating costs, particularly as internet traffic is thought to be growing by more than 50% annually, driven mainly by the proliferation of online video.
Operators say they need new sources of revenue to pay for the necessary upgrade to their networks to handle the surge in traffic, and charging content providers for faster speeds is one option.
Operators' greatest fear, of becoming dumb pipes, is looking ever nearer, while the likes of Amazon make whopping profits on the back of infrastructure it doesn't pay for.
According to the WSJ report, at the moment many large ISPs are afraid of contravening the Federal Communications Commission's guidelines, which support network neutrality. However, AT&T and Verizon, among others have said they will create internet fast lanes and charge content providers a fee to use it.
The is a powerful anti-monopoly argument against the likes of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft being allowed to pay for preferential treatment: the transformational success over the internet in the last 15 years or so is largely due to its accessibility and openness for companies of all sizes.
If smaller companies are relegated to using slower network speeds, it will kill competition and make a mountain of the level playing field that enabled YouTube, Facebook, Amazon, Skype et al to flourish before being bought out by internet behemoths.
The WSJ points out that President Elect Obama professed commitment to network neutrality a year ago, at Google's campus in Mountain View, California, saying, "The Internet is perhaps the most open network in history, and we have to keep it that way. I will take a back seat to no-one in my commitment to network neutrality."
However, some of his closest advisors are thought to be against it. They include Lawrence Lessig, an internet law professor at Stanford University and former advocate of network neutrality, who has recently changed his mind.