FON, AUPs, ethics and practicalities
FON has had an upsurge of publicity lately, in the US at least, following an article in the Wall Street Journal, and funding from Google. The article more deals with the ethics involved in bloggers recommending a product without disclosing their interest in that product. But the article also put the concept of sharing Internet connections over WiFi in a more mainstream light.
Many bloggers commenting about the FON concept have focussed on the business model. FON encourages it's users to share their wired (DSL/Cable) Internet connection through their FON-enabled router. Many have criticised FON saying that it's business model is dependant upon it's users violating their respective ISP's Acceptable Usage Policies (AUP).
To these critics I ask - why cry foul? An ISP may have an AUP in place, but can it really claim to own the bandwidth after it has been paid for by the customer? There are various technical means that the customer can use to hide what's really going on on his side of his modem. So what use is an AUP if violations can't be easily detected?
The way I see it is, an ISP provides Internet bandwidth to the customer, and receives money in return. Bandwidth is a finite resource. If the customer chooses to share it with his friends or neighbors, isn't that the customer's problem? By sharing it, there is less available for his own use.
If the ISP has a problem with that, why do they market their service as "unlimited"? To sell a service as unlimited, then place limitations on it is unethical. Historically, I believe that people have compled with their AUPs simply because it takes an effort to not comply. Previously, sharing your bandwidth with your neighbors has taken a bit of knowledge and time - and not everybody had wireless routers. These days wireless networking makes it incredibly easy to share your bandwidth.
ISPs have to wake up to this fact and use it to their advantage. They need to learn the lessons of the P2P wars between file-sharers and the RIAA. The RIAA is public enemy number one amogst much of the music-consuming public because the RIAA has been consistently treating it's potenial customers as potential criminals. The RIAA has been largely opposed to change in their business model, despite the fact that technology advances have been steadily rendering their old business model irrelevant. Being more technology-savvy, I would expect ISP's to rely less on a heavy-handed approach to AUP violations and instead embrace the winds of change.
I respect the concept of copyright and intellectual property. I just don't think that business models, based on the idea that copyrighted works in digital form can be sold as individual units, are viable. I can sympathise with the RIAA. I believe that redistributing copyrighted works without the appropriate permissions is unethical because it potentially robs the artist of a sale. A person can make an infinite number of perfect copies of a copyrighted work without loss to himself. The same is not true for Internet bandwidth. If an ISP's customer shares his bandwidth, he loses a certain amount of bandwidth to whomever he has shared it with. Rather than duplicating the Internet access, the customer has half the level of access he is paying for. This is almost the same thing as a person sharing a CD with his friend - the CD is not duplicated, there is no copyright violation, but both people are able to listen to the CD. This is the choice those people have chosen. The record company can't monitor if people physically share their CDs - and so they don't bother to try. ISPs can be prevented from seeing if people are sharing their access - so why should they bother with AUPs that restrict bandwidth sharing? If people want to share with their friends isn't that their personal choice? AUP or not, is it really practical for an ISP to try to police what goes on on the customer's side of the modem? And if it is not practical to do so, is it then a wise thing to make rules regarding this sort of customer behaviour? I think not.
In the end, the free market should be the final arbiter. If bandwidth-sharing becomes prevelant, I would hope that commercial opportunities exist for ISPs to supply bandwidth to customers who wish to share it. There may not be as much profit in such an exercise, but then, technological change has a way of screwing with people's established enterprises. The freedom of the Internet screwed proprietary networks such as Compuserve. AOL survived by becoming an ISP rather than competing head-on with the Internet. The same choice may now be looming for today's ISPs.