By Ryan Singel
In a dramatic about-face on a key internet issue yesterday, Google told the FCC that the network neutrality rules Google once championed don’t give citizens the right to run servers on their home broadband connections, and that the Google Fiber network is perfectly within its rights to prohibit customers from attaching the legal devices of their choice to its network.
At issue is Google Fiber’s Terms of Service, which contains a broad prohibition against customers attaching “servers” to its ultrafast 1 Gbps network in Kansas City.
Google wants to ban the use of servers because it plans to offer a business class offering in the future. A potential customer, Douglas McClendon, filed a complaint against the policy in 2012 with the FCC, which eventually ordered Google to explain its reasoning by July 29.
In its response, Google defended its sweeping ban by citing the very ISPs it opposed through the years-long fight for rules that require broadband providers to treat all packets equally.
“Google Fiber’s server policy is consistent with policies of many major providers in the industry,” Google Fiber lawyer Darah Smith Franklin wrote, going on to quote AT&T, Comcast and Verizon’s anti-server policies.
Google’s version, as it admits in its response to McClendon (.pdf), flatly prohibits subscribers from using “any type of server:”
Your Google Fiber account is for your use and the reasonable use of your guests. Unless you have a written agreement with Google Fiber permitting you do so, you should not host any type of server using your Google Fiber connection, use your Google Fiber account to provide a large number of people with Internet access, or use your Google Fiber account to provide commercial services to third parties (including, but not limited to, selling Internet access to third parties).
The problem is that a server, by definition, doesn’t have to be a dedicated expensive computer. Any PC or Mac can be a server, as can all sorts of computing devices.
Moreover, the net neutrality rules (.pdf)regarding devices are plain and simple: ”Fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.”
But Google’s legally binding Terms of Service outlaw Google Fiber customers from running their own mail server, using a remotely accessible media server, SSHing into a home computer from work to retrieve files, running a Minecraft server for friends to share, using a Nest thermometer, using a nanny camera to watch over a childcare provider or using a Raspberry Pi to host a WordPress blog.
None of those devices would do any harm to any broadband network, let alone a Google Fiber connection with a 1Gbps capacity equally split between uploading and downloading.
The server ban also prohibits you from attaching your personal computer to Google Fiber if you are using peer-to-peer software, because that works by having your computer be both a client and a server.
The Free Network Foundation is working on a “Freedom Box” — an open-source appliance you plug into your router that gives you ways to surf the net safely and anonymously; to help dissidents publish to the world; and to create open, distributed alternatives to Twitter and Facebook.
That too, by definition, is a server and thus banned by Google Fiber.
Google says its rule is “fully consistent with the Open Internet Order and Rules,” citing the provisions that allow for reasonable network management. (These provisions regulate what ISPs can do when congestion happens, and are not intended to provide an excuse to ban things that might cause congestion or threaten a business model.)
But in the Google Fiber forums, employees assure subscribers the rules aren’t meant to apply to Minecraft servers. And, in reality, Google Fiber probably won’t notice, let alone kick you off, for using a Slingbox or peer-to-peer software.
Call it net neutrality by the grace of cool Google employees.
But that’s not the vision of net neutrality that Google laid out in that friend of the court brief (.pdf) it signed onto in November, when it argued that the FCC’s aggressive net neutrality policing made it possible for Sling to succeed:
Sling, a company under joint control with DISH, has also witnessed the close link between non-discriminatory online access and infrastructure investment.
Sling is a combination of software and equipment that connects a user’s home set-top box, DVR, or DVD player to the Internet, allowing the viewing of live and recorded television from anywhere in the world—essentially ‘place shifting’ the home television experience to wherever the user is.
Sling was able to overcome initial resistance by Apple and AT&T for inclusion in the iPad platform (Order, 25 FCC Rcd. at 17925 35 n.107), and has been available on the iPad since 2009. Overcoming this initial barrier has promoted infrastructure investment in two ways.
First, the demand for the Sling equipment has risen many times over, partly due to the product’s availability on the iPad platform. Second, the consumption of content through Sling has increased commensurately, driving further demand for access and inviting greater infrastructure investment.
That’s D.C. tech-policy speak for: After the FCC strong-armed Apple into allowing iPhone users to connect to their Slingboxes, the public benefited with increased infrastructure investment by mobile providers and ISPs got more business.
Unfortunately for Google Fiber’s current stance, a Slingbox is a server. A home server.
So in Google’s version of net neutrality, the FCC was the right to force Apple to let iPhone users connect to their home servers, but the FCC has no right to force Google to let its broadband subscribers run a home server.
In November, Google said it was important for innovation that “the main broadband gatekeepers will not act unilaterally to constrain artificially the availability of new ‘edge-based’ content and services.”
Nothing is more edge-based than a citizen running a server on their own connection.
But, it turns out that Google’s real net neutrality policy is that big corporate services like YouTube and Facebook shouldn’t get throttled or banned by evil ISPs like Verizon, but it’s perfectly fine for Google to control what devices citizens can use in their homes.
We, it seems, are supposed to be good consumers of cloud services, not hosting our own Freedom Boxes, media servers, small-scale commercial services or e-mail servers.
That’s not what the net neutrality fight was about.
The fight was intended to make broadband services act like utilities that don’t care what a packet contains or what router, computer, phone or device you use, so long as you aren’t hurting the network.
In the net neutrality vision of the world, broadband providers simply deliver packets as they are paid to do.
When it was just a set of online services, Google happened to fall on the side of citizens and used to advocate against broadband companies controlling the pipes. Now that it’s an ISP itself, Google is becoming a net neutrality hypocrite.
The FCC has avoided addressing this issue, and in this case, simply forwarded to Google an “informal complaint.”
But now that Google’s shown what it really thinks of net neutrality, the door is open for the FCC to show that it’s serious enough about the principle to take on its former corporate ally.