Update (10/16/2013): Google Fiber has made a change to their Acceptable Use Policy that clarifies that some non-commercial uses for running servers are permitted. We applaud Google for making this change, but note that there are still provisions to take issue with in the policy, such as the explicit ban on users running open wireless networks, which runs counter to our Open Wireless Movement.

In a Wired piece published recently, Ryan Singel assails Google's newfound hypocrisy when it comes to net neutrality. And he's right. Having spent many years fighting to stop Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from discriminating between different types of Internet traffic, the tech giant is now perpetuating a long-standing form of that discrimination with Google Fiber, its own ISP, by adopting a terrible Terms of Service clause that bans the use of “servers.” Google's ban on servers is sadly not a departure from the norm, as similar prohibitions can be found within the Terms of Service of other large ISPs.

The relevant Network Management Guide snippet for Google Fiber:

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).

From Comcast XFINITY's Acceptable Use Policy:

use or run dedicated, stand alone equipment or servers from the Premises that provide network content or any other services to anyone outside of your Premises local area network (‘Premises LAN’), also commonly referred to as public services or servers. Examples of prohibited equipment and servers include, but are not limited to, email, web hosting, file sharing, and proxy services and servers.

Verizon's Terms of Service:

You also may not ... use the Service to host any type of server.

Cox's Acceptable Use Policy:

You may not operate, or allow others to operate, servers of any type or any other device, equipment, and/or software providing server like functionality in connection with [Cox High Speed Internet SM service], unless expressly authorized by Cox.

AT&T's Acceptable Use Policy considers it a "network security violation" to:

[use] your account for the purpose of operating a server of any type.

This norm is unreasonable – it is a power grab by ISPs that damages user freedom and chills innovation of different types of Internet-based technologies that don't follow the traditional centralized model.

What's a “server” anyway?

The first problem with prohibiting servers is that there is no good definition of a server. The notions of servers and clients can be very useful when illustrating how many basic web services work, but the distinction quickly gets blurry in practice. When you run peer-to-peer services like BitTorrent, your computer is acting both as a client and a server. And these services aren't limited to BitTorrent, as the peer-to-peer approach has garnered attention as a distribution mechanism for traditional media as well, and is part of the architecture of many mainstream services like Skype and Spotify. Should all these budding and varied forms of peer-to-peer distribution be prohibited by Comcast or Google Fiber? Or should these ISPs get to selectively enforce their Terms of Service only against services that they don't like because they involve some aspect of running a "server"?

No ISP will come forward with a tighter definition of “server” because they want to give themselves leeway to ban users and technologies that they deem to be troublemakers. This strategy of making incredibly broad, vague, and one-sided contracts is deeply problematic and unfair towards users, and it's disheartening to see Google follow this well-trodden path.

Why shouldn't we run servers?

Beyond the vagueness of what makes a “server,” the next natural question is why this prohibition against servers should exist in the first place. Users have a diverse set of needs, and many of us regularly make use of servers that we run on home networks.

There can be major privacy and security benefits to running your own server. Running an SSH or VPN server allows me to remotely connect to a home computer and trusted network, and running a mail server allows me to store my email locally, hence enjoying greater Constitutional protections for my email. Moreover, projects like FreedomBox – which aim to enhance security and privacy by giving users more control over their communication and social networking data – very much depend on users being able to run programs that could easily be deemed “servers.”

Servers can be used in all sorts of clever ways. If the ban on running servers were lifted, ordinary Internet users would be able to do a multitude of interesting things with fewer barriers, spurring innovation. This will be even more true in the coming years, especially if IPv6 adoption obsoletes a technology called NAT (which stands for Network Address Translation) that currently creates a barrier to running some types of servers (like web servers) from home networks.

Arguments that ISPs need to have this anti-server policy for business reasons are specious, as a variety of business models exist that would allow users to pay a fair price without severely restricting the freedom to use their Internet connection in reasonable ways that they choose.

But, like it or not, the ban on servers continues from all major ISPs and now Google Fiber as well. We are disappointed in Google, and hope that the search giant rethinks this decision. After all, improving Internet access in this country isn't just about giving users greater connection speeds, it's about giving them greater freedom too.