Net neutrality is a slippery subject. Months after the government appeared to get greedy telecom companies in check, carriers have come up with another clever trick to make more money and jeopardize the open internet. The latest trick is something called zero-rating, and your mobile carrier probably already uses—or abuses—this net neutrality loophole.
This week, 58 tech companies, including Reddit, Yelp, and Kickstarter, asked the FCC in a letter to lead a transparent discussion about zero-rating practices. Basically, they want the same open discussion that spurred 4 million people to send comments to the FCC because they believe zero-rating policy could have a dramatic effect on the health of net neutrality in the US.
The FCC is reportedly scrutinizing zero-rating practices, but the agency is doing so behind closed doors. Companies that depend on an open and unbiased internet are very concerned about this. The letter notes:
Making decisions on these cases would set precedents for future practices, and would have implications for the Internet ecosystem that reach far beyond the stakeholders directly affected by these individual plans.
These decisions are too important to happen behind closed doors.
If you’re not familiar with zero-rating, the term refers to carriers exempting certain services, like Spotify and Netflix, from a customer’s data plan—meaning unlimited binging with no data cap worries. Net neutrality advocates are quick to point out how this is not unlike giving certain types of data priority over others, like a toll road rather than a fast lane.
Well known examples of zero-rating include the Music Freedom and BingeOn programs offered by T-Mobile. Obviously, T-Mobile sees the plan as pro-consumer. The company says that any music or video service can sign up (if they meet the tech requirements) and that the services are completely optional for users. Meanwhile, digital rights activists like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) take issue with zero-rating practices on the grounds that they violate the principles of net neutrality. The EFF even got into a public Twitter spat with T-Mobile CEO John Legere in January. A separate Stanford study sides with EFF on the matter.
“Widely embraced, zero-rating threatens to rewrite the rules upon which the internet was built,” EFF legal director Corynne McSherry told Gizmodo. “Zero-rating helps transform the internet from a permission-less environment... into one in which developers effectively need to seek approval from ISPs before deploying their latest groundbreaking technology.”
But new and arguably more nefarious examples have sprung up since T-Mobile’s arguably well-intentioned net neutrality infraction. Ars Technica reported last November that Comcast’s own streaming service doesn’t count against customers data caps—but Netflix sure does! However, Comcast argues that Stream TV operates under different rules as its part of its cable service. Verizon does something similar with its own go90 video platform, and just last week, Sprint said it would also be zero-rating traffic, meaning all four major carriers in the US practice some form of data cap manipulation. Companies like Verizon and AT&T also charge web services if they wish to have a zero-rating on their network, creating an obvious unfair competitive landscape, whereas T-Mobile’s zero-rating service is free to join.
It’s not just mobile either. With the growing stable of ISPs putting data caps on broadband internet, like Comcast but also smaller ISPs, zero-rating may not only affect your smartphone but also your home internet as well. So you can see how this could easily balloon into a much bigger problem if left unaddressed.
Back in 2015, the FCC didn’t put forth a definitive bright-line rule because there simply weren’t enough examples to create one. The FCC did say that it would examine zero-rating issues on a case-by-case basis.
During an FCC press conference on Wednesday, Chairman Tom Wheeler said that he’s seen the companies’ zero-rating letter, but that the commission is currently waiting to hear the DC circuit’s decision on the open internet rules which has been languishing in courts for months. When asked if a ruling would affect judgement on zero-rating issues, Wheeler said he wouldn’t comment on anything hypothetical.
But advocates and affected companies are transparent about what they want. “I’d love to see them seek input from a variety of sources,” said McSherry. “They need to bring in the nerds to really understand the potential impact of these programs.”
The FCC has been kicking ass on the internet policies recently with strong open internet rules, subsidizing broadband internet for low-income housing, and calling bullshit on terrible cable boxes. We can only hope the trend continues.