In an age where mobile carriers run roughshod over their
customers while raking in billions, net neutrality has become a
rallying cry from users hoping to regain some semblance of
technological freedom from their provider's draconian policies and
fees. Naturally, left to their own devices, carriers like
) have introduced
arbitrary data caps and throttling
-- not to mention are charging ridiculously marked-up fees for text
messaging. They've effectively reduced choice (try running
Android's (Nexus 5 on Verizon's network) and eliminated true
ownership (or removed bloatware from smartphones with locked
So, whenever one of these providers has a new policy to announce,
subscribers' immediate inclination is to be wary. And AT&T's
new Sponsored Data program justifies such a reaction.
Earlier this week, AT&T touted a new plan wherein advertisers
and developers can pay to deliver content to someone's phone
without it counting against a customer's data cap. Like with most
new sweeping programs, the policy appears at face value to directly
benefit the consumer. After all, who wouldn't want to access data
without hitting that data limit? But by introducing a pay-to-play
system for content makers, AT&T destroys that even playing
field where net neutrality thrives.
Nilay Patel at The Verge
explains the problem
with a streaming-video example. If a movie can be streamed for
$4.99 from both
), either company could subsidize the cost of the rental by paying
AT&T directly and not have the download count against the
"That has huge implications for the free market of the Internet,"
Patel writes. "[If] YouTube doesn't hit your data cap but Vimeo
does, most people are going to watch YouTube. If Facebook feels
threatened by Snapchat and launches Poke with free data, maybe it
doesn't get completely ignored and fail. If Apple Maps launched
with free data for navigation, maybe we'd all be driving off
bridges instead of downloading Google Maps for iOS."
And as soon as certain content makers are given preferential
treatment over others, there goes net neutrality.
This week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, FCC
chairman Tom Wheeler voiced his concern over AT&T's Sponsored
Data plan and its threat against Net Neutrality. "My attitude is:
Let's take a look at what this is, let's take a look at how it
operates." He added, "And be sure, that if it interferes with the
operation of the Internet; that if it develops into an
anticompetitive practice; that if it does have some kind of
preferential treatment given somewhere, then that is cause for us
But while the government agency is taking a more "wait-and-see"
approach, California Congresswoman and net neutrality advocate Anna
Eshoo is convinced that AT&T is overstepping its boundaries and
believes the program should be nipped in the bud. "On its face, the
ability for consumers to access 'toll-free' content seems like
long-awaited relief from frustrating data caps," she said. "But
embedded in programs of this type are serious implications for
fairness and competition in the mobile marketplace."
She adds, "The announcement of a sponsored data program by AT&T
puts it in the business of picking winners and losers on the
Internet, threatening the open Internet, competition, and consumer
Of course, AT&T has a different interpretation of the matter
and denies its program violates net neutrality.
AT&T's senior executive vice president of external and
legislative affairs, Jim Cicconi, said in a statement, "We are
completely confident this offering complies with the FCC's net
neutrality rules, which our company supports. AT&T's sponsored
data service is aimed solely at benefiting our customers. It allows
any company who wishes to pay our customers' costs for accessing
that company's content to do so. This is purely voluntary and
non-exclusive. It is an offering by that company, not by AT&T."
But contrary to what Cicconi says, this isn't just like a company
offering a discount on a paid app or movie. Data caps themselves
are already a
based on unquantifiable metrics that
do nothing but generate bigger profits
for providers. Subsidizing data usage so a product can be accessed
without fear of restriction is the very antithesis of net
neutrality and the free market. It all but begs the user to access
one service over the other due to an unnecessary limit put into
place by a superfluous and all-too-powerful middleman.
When one megabyte isn't equal to another, net neutrality is lost.
Let's just hope the FCC can come to realize that.
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