Verizon's Android tethering block: What really happened and why

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)

The blogosphere's abuzz right now with word that Verizon -- the typically Android-friendly carrier -- has begun blocking all tethering apps from its Android devices.

Verizon Android Tethering

Have you heard about this? The carrier that "does" is evidently telling customers "don't" when it comes to the use of free Android tethering utilities like PdaNet and Wireless Tether. As the crew from first observed, those types of apps no longer show up when you search the Android Market from a Verizon-connected device.

So what's the deal? Is Verizon turning into the next AT&T? Is Google going back on its promise to maintain an open and uncensored app market?

There's no shortage of theories floating around out there. In reality, though, the situation is mildly irksome, but -- at this point, at least -- not nearly as dramatic as some are making it out to be.

Verizon's Android Tethering Block: The Inside Explanation

Here's what actually happened, as explained to me by someone with close knowledge of Google's Android Market systems and procedures:

Verizon filed a request with Google to have the tethering apps filtered out of the Market on devices connected to its network. Any Android carrier can file such a request. Google will honor the request only if the apps in question directly violate the carrier's terms of service. And Google will take action only when a carrier comes forward to make a request; Google won't seek out potential carrier TOS conflicts or set up carrier-specific filters on its own.

In the case of Verizon, the carrier's data plan TOS document does, in fact, state that on "unlimited smartphone and BlackBerry plans," your data cannot be used "for any applications that tether your device to laptops or personal computers ... unless you subscribe to Mobile Broadband Connect."

Annoying? Yes. Violating Android's open nature? Not exactly.

Remember: The only thing Google does in these instances is prevent the app from appearing in the Market client on the complaining carrier's network -- something that's actually noted as a possibility in Google's own Android Market terms. Google does not remove the app from the Market because of a carrier's TOS complaint. And it does not in any way prevent users from manually installing the app, aka sideloading it, on their own. 

In other words, as a Verizon customer, there's nothing stopping you from downloading a tethering app from somewhere other than the official Android Market and using it on your phone. You can usually find apps on developers' websites or in any number of user forums. Heck, Amazon's Android app store even has a smattering of tethering apps available. Granted, you'd still technically be violating Verizon's TOS by using them -- and it'd be up to Verizon as to whether it attempts to detect that and take any action against you (thus far, it generally has not) -- but there's nothing on your phone or within the Android operating system that'd keep you from doing it.

Android Tethering Blocks: What About AT&T?

Android Tethering Block

Now, with AT&T, we have a slightly different story. AT&T is monitoring unauthorized tethering and, at least in some cases, ordering users to either stop or start subscribing to its official tethering plan. AT&T also takes the additional step of locking down its Android devices to keep users from installing apps from outside of the official Android Market. That is obnoxious. But it's also AT&T's prerogative -- just like it's our prerogative to pick which mobile carrier we want to use.

(On a side note, there's actually a pretty easy way around AT&T's Market-only restriction -- though it, too, likely violates some clause buried deep within the carrier's terms.)

Android Tethering Blocks: The Big Picture

So is Google doing the right thing with its carrier-specific Market tethering blocks? That's a subjective call. Personally, I subscribe to the idea that you're paying a carrier for data and -- within the confines of your plan -- should be able to use that data in any way you want. After all, tethering a laptop to your phone and surfing the Web through the PC doesn't inherently use any more bandwidth than getting online through the phone itself.

That said, the "no tethering" clause is something carriers include in their network terms -- terms that we, for better or for worse, all agreed to when we started service. By honoring carriers' requests to filter tethering apps from the Market on their networks, Google is simply protecting itself by not defiantly continuing to flaunt the contract-violating tools in its official channel. Given the open nature of the Android ecosystem, the block strikes me as more symbolic than anything: The apps are still easily acquired without the need for any kind of rooting or advanced hack; Google has done nothing to change that. That's a sharp contrast to what you'd see on a closed platform like iOS.

Android Power Twitter

I'm not here to defend or condemn what's happening, but I will say this: We have every right to feel frustrated with the regulations on how we use our mobile data. Ultimately, though, in this circumstance, that beef is probably more with the carriers than with the maker of the OS.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on both Facebook and Twitter.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

5 ways to make Windows 10 act like Windows 7
Shop Tech Products at Amazon