WASHINGTON — When Google was just a mighty search engine, the company championed an open, unfettered Internet. Now that it’s selling ultrafast broadband Internet and TV service in Kansas City, with plans to repeat the service elsewhere, the tech giant bars customers from hosting servers on the Google Fiber network without written permission.
In some tech circles, that’s seen as at least a partial reversal by Google, one that might undercut the company’s position in coming regulatory battles over the concept known as net neutrality.
In the past, Google has been an outspoken advocate for net neutrality, a set of regulations that prevent Internet service providers from giving a preference to any type of Internet traffic over another or blocking any lawful content, applications, services or devices.
Google Fiber spokeswoman Jenna Wandres said in a statement that the company’s stance on net neutrality hadn’t changed.
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“Google is a strong supporter of the open Internet,” Wandres said.
Yet in the fine print of Google Fiber’s terms of service, legally binding language forbids customers from hosting any type of server “unless you have a written agreement with Google Fiber permitting you to do so.”
“It really does feel like an about-face,” said Dan Andresen, an associate professor of computing and information sciences at Kansas State University. “There is kind of a sense of betrayal or concern that we thought Google was different [from other Internet service providers] and it turns out they aren’t.”
He said the policy might have a chilling effect on users, particularly entrepreneurs who may have moved to the Kansas City area to take advantage of Google Fiber’s lightning-fast connection speed of one gigabit per second. That’s roughly 100 times faster than most U.S. home broadband connections.
Even Skype, a nanny cam, Slingbox or the program that monitors the solar panel on Andresen’s home could be considered servers, and technically prohibited under Google Fiber’s terms of service, he said.
“Google has made this effectively a consumption-only device while marketing all these cool things you can do with this gigabit connection,” Andresen said. “Now they’re coming and saying, ‘Oh, but wait, there’s a whole huge class of things that now we are forbidding.’ ”
Indeed, often overlooked is that Google Fiber promises not just light-speed downloads, but also uploads of a gigabit per second, a thousand times faster than most home consumers experience. That capability makes running a server — a computer that can host a website or channel peer-to-peer file-swapping operations — far more practical at home.
The net-neutrality issue surfaced in a complaint filed by Douglas McClendon of Lawrence, Kan. — an area where Google Fiber has yet to announce any plans to sell Internet hookups — with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Last week, the company argued in a letter to the FCC that its terms of service run consistent with industry standards and don’t violate the government’s open-Internet rules.
The company noted in the letter that Google Fiber is intended as a residential offering only, not a business product. Under the terms of service, Google Fiber won’t prevent legal, noncommercial use of applications such as multiplayer gaming, videoconferencing and home security, Google said.
Google Fiber plans to offer a small-business service sometime in the future for customers who want to run commercial servers, Wandres said.
Although Google’s letter to the FCC ignited some outrage in the blogosphere, a few analysts found the reaction overblown.
Stacey Higginbotham, a blogger for GigaOM, called the development a “tempest in a teapot” but hoped for serious debates over how to define servers and how to distinguish home broadband use from business use.
Google’s problem is that when customers buy “unlimited” service for their homes, the Internet service provider is counting on them using it “normally,” said Dan Wallach, a computer-science professor at Rice University.
“What Google is worried about is the possibility that users will run full-blown Web services out of their homes and will truly run that gigabit link flat-out 24-7,” he said. “That sort of usage would crush their backbone.”
A gigabit connection in most American cities can easily cost $500 a month, compared with $70 per month from Google Fiber.