Are Some Definitions and Regulations Outdated?

Carl Weinschenk

Device definitions and regulations surrounding how equipment is used don’t generally create much excitement. As the capabilities and capacities of networks explode, though, these become very important issues.

At Wired, Ryan Singel discusses a complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission by a gentleman named Douglas McClendon. McClendon claims that Google Fiber’s prohibition of servers attaching to its network violates net neutrality rules.

The FCC responded with four justifications for the prohibition. As laid out by Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOm, the crux of the issue is that the terms of service (TOS) could be interpreted to prohibit many innocuous home servers that commonly are used by consumers.

Google's stance shows a great deal of hubris. Singel notes that Google took the other side of the argument when it was trying to force Apple to let the iPad connect to Slingboxes. Slingbox devices, Singel notes, are in fact, home servers:

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.

Corporations are in the business of making money, so taking both sides of the same issue without blinking is common. What is more important, however, is that the frameworks for regulating networks in an era in which data trickled into and (even more slowly) out of a home and one in which speeds explode are two different things.

Google Fiber is clearly in the spotlight in a way that likely will lead to more awkward contradictions. Wrote Higginbotham:

Google will be at the forefront of these debates because it’s trying to push the envelope on broadband offerings while still trying to turn a profit. It wants to encourage innovation, but leave terms of service in place that will allow it to control what happens on its network. Like a bar owner or a central banker it has to encourage exuberance, while curbing the obvious harms of irrational exuberance. That’s a tough line to walk.

DSL Report’s Karl Bode provides a different take, but one that also validates the idea that definitions and language must be updated. He points out that the “Internet hand wringing and face fanning” over Singel’s piece is overblown. Every ISP has terms of service similar to Google Fiber’s. Bode points out that the limitations and prohibitions are never enforced. An ISP simply wants to protect itself; it has no interest in interfering with anyone’s nanny cam.

Bode is not wrong, but misses the point. Singel no doubt knows that Google will be judicious. He is simply pointing out that under current rules, it is entirely possible that Google Fiber could exert tremendous control. That means that the terms of service are essentially code for a claim to almost complete ISP control.

If that is what Google Fiber and other ISPs want, the debate should be held. Judicial and political tests should be given to the approach. Simply saying that such provisions are the norm and aren’t enforced is enough--especially considering that escalating speeds make it more likely that subscribers will do things that their ISP landlords don’t like.

Google is the highest-profile provider of these superfast services, but by no means the only one. Such projects drive the development of technology and business cases. They can help regulators and legislators figure out how the rules must adapt to meet the needs of an ever-changing world.

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