More than a year after the FCC passed its Open Internet rules, net neutrality is still under siege. Public advocacy groups said in a letter to the agency Monday that zero-rating programs are the latest threat to the principle that all network traffic be treated equally.
“Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are using new ‘zero-rating’ plans to undermine the spirit and the text of the rules,” said the letter, signed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press and others.
For example, T-Mobile’s Binge On feature allows its customers to watch Netflix, YouTube and other videos without having that usage count against their data caps. T-Mobile’s offering has been controversial, with YouTube at first complaining that its video was being throttled for T-Mobile users without its permission. But after T-Mobile made some adjustments, including letting video providers control how their video is presented, even YouTube got on board. And Comcast’s Stream TV, a video-streaming service that’s available in limited areas, competes with other services in that it doesn’t count against customers’ broadband limits.
What’s so wrong with offerings that allow broadband and mobile customers to bypass data caps, anyway? T-Mobile defends BingeOn by saying it’s something that customers can easily turn on and off. Comcast has said Stream TV goes over its own networks and not the broader Internet.
Troy Wolverton wrote last month that such programs can end up picking winners and losers: “Think about it: Which site are you more likely to visit — the one that’s free or the one that costs you money or taps into your data allotment?” So while it might be cool that T-Mobile customers’ Netflix binge watching doesn’t count against their data caps, Binge On may be preventing the next would-be Netflix out there from even getting started.
And in the letter to the Federal Communications Commission today, the public advocacy groups also say “these harms tend to fall disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color, who tend to rely on mobile networks as their primary or exclusive means of access to the Internet.”
The groups, which include ColorofChange.org and Voices for Racial Justice, are urging the FCC to take a bolder stance against zero rating.
“Without action from the FCC, zero-rating plans will continue to expand, and ISPs will continue to seek out ways to monetize capped broadband service at the expense of an open Internet and the communities that rely on it,” the letter says.
Photo: T-Mobile CEO John Legere in 2013. Legere has vehemently defended his company’s Binge On offering, which is an example of a zero-rating program. (Associated Press archives)