Google’s apparent U-turn on net neutrality raises definition issues

In a move that appears to fly in the face of its support for net neutrality, Google this week filed a document with US regulator the FCC stating that customers of its fibre to the home network were limited in what kind of devices or applications they could attach to those connections. But is the situation as clear cut as it seems?

At one time Google positioned itself as a strong advocate of net neutrality. Back in 2009 the company even collaborated with the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute and the PlanetLab Consortium, to come up with a way of measuring the ‘openness’ of communications networks, in a bid to help policy makers and regulators make more informed decisions.

The concept of net neutrality is a hotly debated and controversial issue, with the content and application providers of the internet world accusing broadband network operators of acting as gatekeepers, preventing consumers from enjoying the full range of innovation and choice available through the open internet.

But the FCC filing this week, in response to a citizen request that Google modify its terms of service, explicitly states that Google Fiber customers are not allowed to connect servers of any kind to that network.

Kansas resident Douglas McClendon, who it should be pointed out is not a Google Fiber user and does not live in the current service area, filed a complaint with the FCC claiming that Google Fiber’s server policy violates the Open Internet Order and is seeking to have the “‘no server hosting of any kind allowed’ clause removed from Google Fiber’s terms of service.

The Open Internet Order is a set of regulations that move towards the establishment of the internet neutrality concept based on four principles including two which state:

Consumers should be allowed to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.

Consumers should be able to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.

This is clearly what McClendon is basing his argument on and in his complaint he expresses his desire to host a server for use in his business on a prospective Google Fiber connection.

The claim has echoes of Skype’s 2007 invocation of an American legal precedent known as the Carterfone decision in its own battle for net neutrality. Carterphone dates back to 1968 when federal regulators issued a landmark ruling that allowed Americans to own the telephones in their homes. In effect, it allows customers to attach any devices to the phone network, provided they do not damage it.

This is where some of the industry’s media are saying Google has flip-flopped on its net neutrality support by refusing McClendon’s wishes. But is that really the case?

Google Fiber does not currently support business use of its service, it is explicitly for consumer use only. What’s more, a level of service (up to 5Mbps uplink) is provided free of charge following a $300 construction fee. Google isn’t required to offer free service, it’s doing it by choice. Not that any of this should have any impact on net neutrality anyway.

Google is not alone in stating that customers are banned from connecting servers to its network, the country’s leading broadband providers like AT&T and Verizon have similar clauses in their terms of service and the carriers routinely turn a blind eye to applications which could be considered ‘servers’ in the form of multi-player gaming and video-conferencing.

A big part of the argument about net neutrality revolves around vocabulary and definition and what McClendon and Google have illustrated here is that there needs to be more definition around the types of servers that can be attached to consumer broadband networks. With so many internet connected devices appearing in homes, many of which – set top boxes, media players, games consoles and PCs – could easily be considered physical servers alongside a great many interactive or collaborative applications, the industry might be prompted to look at its definitions and terms of service in greater detail.

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