Skype’s Gripe & The RIAA’s War on Wi-Fi - Twice

Skype’s Gripe & The RIAA’s War on Wi-Fi

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Skype is petitioning the FCC to force cellular carriers to allow consumers to use their VoIP service over a carrier’s data plan (hat tip: EE Times).

According to the EE Times:

Skype is asking the FCC to apply the so-called Carterfone rules to the wireless industry. Those rules were enacted during the AT&T wired telephone monopoly to force AT&T to let consumers connect phones and other devices to the network, even if the devices were not made or approved by AT&T.

The petition also asks the FCC to start a rulemaking proceeding to determine the legality of the carriers' restrictions on subscribers' full access to Internet-based applications. It asks the commission to oversee a private sector group that would work to set open standards and transparency in wireless networks.

Some carriers now have terms of service that explicitly prevent customers from using the Skype software on their networks. Skype lets users make free long distance calls using voice over Internet Protocol.

This sounds an awful lot like the “net neutralitydebate that gripped the country (well, the country’s geek population) a few months back. The carriers, much like Internet service providers, don’t want to allow third parties to use their networks to siphon off dollars that they believe should go to them. At a minimum, the carriers/ISPs want to be able to set the prices for network access and if those prices just so happen to be so high that start-ups and services that compete with the ISP’s own services are priced out… well, that’s just the free market. Go cry to Adam Smith.

Third party developers, like Skype, obviously think this is a bum deal and are asking the courts and regulators to set some ground rules that will give them access.

Adjudicating this dispute is not easy, and it’s not exactly clear to me how it should play out and what outcome best serves the interests of consumers and businesses alike. But it’s an important debate, one that bears watching as it will almost certainly impact the CE business in the years to come.

Also worth watching is – surprise – another RIAA lawsuit. Wired (via Gizmodo) is reporting that the lobby group is taking aim at open hotspots because someone might do some illegal downloading. Wrote Wired:

… if the RIAA's appeal is granted, open Wi-Fi hotspots could become standing invitations for the organization to sue.

Predictably, the RIAA has filed a "motion for reconsideration" of Judge West's decision to force the RIAA to pay for Foster's legal fees. In the motion, the plaintiffs emphasize a key point: They want the judge to rule that the owner of an ISP account is responsible for all activity on that account, which could have a chilling effect on public wireless access and open hotspots. (The appeal also made the point that Foster should be held liable if she wasawareof the infringement occurring via her account; in the case of someone with an open Wi-Fi network, that could constitute something as simple as experiencing traffic slowdowns.)

If the judge rules that we're each legally responsible for all of the traffic that comes through our ISP account, open, unprotected Wi-Fi hotspots would become a serious legal liability, the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people who depend on their neighbors for Wi-Fi will be out of luck, while altruistic (or ignorant) folks who leave their wireless networks open could find themselves embroiled in an RIAA lawsuits even if they've never shared a single song in their lives.

Look, the RIAA has decided they need to “destroy the village in order to save it.”

To extend the Vietnam analogy out a bit further, doesn’t this seem like your classic insurgency, with the down-loaders playing the role of the insurgents and the RIAA in the role of colonial power? This is not a commentary on the rightness or wrongness of the players involved, just an observation that the dynamics are kind of the same.

In any counter-insurgency, heavy handed tactics – bombing whole villages, intimidating wireless ISPs – tend to backfire. You need to win hearts and minds.

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