Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Zero Rating and Net Neutrality

Nitasha Tiku, Buzzfeed:

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released their long-anticipated ruling on net neutrality in India. The regulators have ruled against differential and discriminatory pricing of mobile data on the basis of content.

This ruling will affect Free Basics — Facebook’s controversial plan to offer free, but limited Internet access — in India. Mark Zuckerberg has been campaigning to bring increased digital connectivity to the developing world. Free Basics, which claims to have 15 million users in more than 35 countries around the globe, is part of Facebook’s quasi-philanthropic efforts.

Klint Finley, Wired:

Verizon has confirmed that any video streamed through its new Go90 service won’t count towards the data plans of Verizon customers. That’s bad news for Netflix, YouTube, and other competing streaming video services, which will continue to count against your data cap—unless perhaps those companies participate in one of Verizon’s FreeBee program, which allows companies to underwrite their app’s bandwidth costs on behalf of users.

The practice of exempting some internet usage from a data cap is known as “zero rating,” and most major internet providers are now dabbling in one form of it or another. T-Mobile exempts video and music streaming from various partners through its Music Freedom and Binge On services. AT&T has been experimenting with various forms of sponsored data in recent years. Sprint’s prepaid service includes some zero rated content. And Comcast allows viewers to watch its Stream TV service, which it classifies as a traditional cable television service, on their computers without having it count towards data limits.

Although these services certainly violate the spirit of network neutrality by allowing providers to give certain partners or themselves an advantage over competitors, zero rating isn’t necessarily banned by the FCC’s Open Internet Order. Instead, the FCC reserved the right to address data cap issues on a case-by-case basis, and there is also a “general conduct” provision that states that bans “unreasonable interference” with internet traffic. That may or may not be enough for the FCC to end zero rating.

It’s very important to emphasize the neutrality word in “net neutrality”. Not only should providers and ISPs be prevented from punishing connections, they ought to be prevented from favouring anything, too.

This is especially important since many major ISPs, cable companies, studios, and distributors are one and the same in North America. Comcast — the ISP and cable TV provider — owns NBCUniversal, which produces and distributes television shows and movies. Time Warner used to be the holding company for Warner Communications, the entertainment company. In Canada, Shaw owns a bunch of TV networks as well as providing cable TV and internet service. Rogers and Bell do the same. There is an inherent conflict of interest in all of these cases, between each company’s various divisions.

Similarly, Facebook was providing free access only to websites and services of their choice, and who entered into an agreement with the company. This entirely undermines the spirit of net neutrality.

It’s easy to see why we might get suckered into this stuff: we like free things. But, if zero rating becomes a standard practice for ISPs and providers, it will be looked at years from now as a short-sighted deal that traded a short-term bonus for poor long-term internet policy. It creates an awful precedent, and should be abolished.