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Craig Aaron

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Google Reserves the Right to Be Evil

Posted: 07/31/2013 6:52 pm

Everyone's favorite Silicon Valley behemoth has some explaining to do.

As journalist-turned-entrepreneur Ryan Singel details over at Wired, Google appears to be turning its back on the open Internet.

At issue is the tech giant's Google Fiber high-speed Internet. Language in the terms of service for this ultra-fast and highly touted broadband experiment in Kansas City prohibits customers from using servers on the network.

When the Google legal department wrote these restrictive terms it likely looked at language crafted by other ISPs, like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, which take a heavy-handed approach in restricting users' activity.

Google's language was ostensibly written to stop businesses from trying to pay residential prices to run a bunch of high-capacity servers and suck up all the bandwidth.

But Singel argues that Google's terms would actually prohibit individual users from using their computers to do all kinds of things that pose no harm to the network:

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.

Now let's be clear: Google hasn't actually been caught blocking any of these activities yet.

And let's also be clear: As Karl Bode notes in his own sharp critique, all ISPs have buried restrictions like this in their fine print.

But wasn't Google supposed to be different? The company literally markets Google Fiber as "a different kind of Internet."

Yet Google's defense, offered in its response to a Federal Communications Commission complaint, is that the company's "server policy is consistent with policies of many major providers in the industry."

"Everyone else does it" isn't much of an excuse. If Google is such an innovator, why can't it innovate its terms of service?

Instead of a bunch of overly broad, over-lawyered gobbledygook, why not just say what's allowed -- and what isn't?

If the problem is the remote possibility that Amazon or Zappos would move a server farm to Kansas City to exploit the Google network, then don't allow that. But make it clear that personal and small-business uses that don't threaten the network are just fine.

(You can go here to tell Google to fix its terms of service.)

While Google's actions thus far don't constitute a Net Neutrality violation, I credit Singel for calling out the company's turn to the dark side.

What's really worrisome here is Google's gradual but unmistakable shift away from the principles of openness and innovation it once championed.

Google might not be evil yet, but it's reserving the right to go there.

Google's whole argument for Google Fiber -- and why it needed so many favors and leeway in places like Kansas City -- is that it wouldn't be just like the big phone and cable companies. A lot of that was hype, but the public does desperately need more choices and competition.

And this latest controversy comes after Google Fiber already backed away from early promises to make its networks "open access" so others could offer services over its pipes.

Google's behavior is even more worrisome against the current political backdrop. In September, a federal court will hear Verizon's challenge to the FCC's Open Internet rules. This is a monumental case that could have far-reaching implications not just for Net Neutrality protections, but on whether the FCC will retain any authority to protect Internet users, rein in price gouging or ensure services for the disabled.

Now there's a real question about where Google will stand if the FCC loses the case. Will it still fight for Net Neutrality?

Back in the early battles over Net Neutrality, Google was a good actor with a clear position. But as it's gotten bigger, hired a bunch of Washington insiders and cozied up to the phone companies (which use Google's Android operating system), the company's full-throated Net Neutrality stance has had some hiccups.

Most notably, Google tried to strike a backroom deal with Verizon on Net Neutrality in 2010. The deal blew up after a public outcry and protests in the streets outside Google headquarters.

Since then, Google's open Internet advocacy has been a mixed bag. The company was on the right side of SOPA/PIPA -- the pair of Web-censorship bills that threatened the Internet's architecture as well as Google's bottom line. On the other hand, we still don't have the full story about Google's complicity in NSA spying.

And now that Google is a new ISP, it's acting just like the old ISPs. And so the company that so famously started in a garage might no longer be interested in helping the next Google out there to do the same.

If you needed any more evidence of the slippery slope here, look at the reaction to Google's actions from the telecom industry's hired guns. The same sorry sock puppets paid to attack Google all the time are suddenly cheering the company's arguments.

When people like this start taking your side, you know something is very, very wrong.

 

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