It shaped up as a classic Goliath-squashes-David lobbying story. Last year the Federal Communications Commission announced plans to auction off spectrum on the public airwaves suitable for wireless phone and Internet transmissions. In response, a collection of nonprofit technology and consumer groups suggested that the winning bidder be required to provide access to its network for the public benefit. Ben Scott, policy director of media independence group Free Press, recalls thinking that the nonprofits had a strong case but were going to get crushed anyway. “We didn’t expect anyone to shove it down the telecoms’ throats,” he says.

Then in May, just a few months before the auction rules were settled, something unexpected happened: Internet giant Google joined the fray — and aligned itself with the nonprofits. If the FCC adopted the nonprofits’ rules and mandated space for the public good, Google hinted, it might put down its own bid.