On Thursday, Verizon proudly announced that it would begin offering “data-free streaming,” joining a growing number of carriers that are letting customers stream videos and music from specific services without it counting against monthly usage caps. That might sound like a sweet deal, but it also undermines the basic principles of net neutrality. And, in the end, the open internet will pay a steep price for this privilege.
The practice is known as “zero-rating” and Verizon is only the latest telecom giant to jump on the trend. In its announcement, the company said that Verizon FiOS internet and TV subscribers could stream video content to their mobile devices data-free if they’re also Verizon Wireless customers. Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t want to watch old episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on-the-go without worrying about Charlie’s antics gobbling up a month’s worth of data?
Well, as they say, it’s the principle of the thing. Zero-rating is a thinly veiled violation of the net neutrality principle that says all data should be treated equally online. Once a company is allowed to prioritize certain types of data over others, the idea of the internet as an even playing field goes up in flames. Verizon Wireless or AT&T giving people an incentive to use the services they own instead of, say, those offered by a smaller company, amounts to a competitive advantage, the first thread pulled in the unravelling of the free and open internet.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) agreed that zero-rating defied net neutrality rules—up until a few weeks ago. When Trump took power, former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai took over as FCC chairman and abruptly began dismantling a number of the agency’s efforts to preserve net neutrality. Among other things, the new chairman promised to ignore people’s concerns with AT&T and others violating net neutrality rules by offering their customers zero-rated content. Pai closed the investigation into schemes like the one Verizon just launched and said, in a statement, that the FCC “will not focus on denying Americans free data.” He added, “These free-data programs have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace.”