If you were wondering whether or not the FCC would bless T-Mobile's new controversial zero rating plans, agency boss Tom Wheeler has given a pretty good indication of which way the agency is leaning. As covered
previously, T-Mobile's been aggressively experimenting with zero rating -- first by exempting only the biggest music services from its usage caps -- then more recently by announcing Binge On. Binge On exempts video services from T-Mobile's wireless data caps, but "optimizes" those streams, limiting them to 480p.
T-Mobile tap danced around net neutrality rather cleverly, by making the option something users can disable
, while stating that any company that wants to participate can join, for free. The problem remains one of precedent: by opening the doors to carriers as middle men in this fashion, you're fundamentally changing the way the internet works. Companies now need to seek special permission from ISPs to ensure their traffic is on a level playing field. A small streaming company in Cleveland, for example, may not even realize it's being discriminated against, or that it needs to contact T-Mobile to stop it.
The pitfalls are nuanced, and consumers have generally been oblivious to the bad precedent thanks to the lure of "free data" (that's not really free, since usage caps are entirely arbitrary constructs to begin with). And now we can add FCC boss Tom Wheeler to the list of folks who apparently think abandoning a truly open internet
is just a nifty idea:
"Wheeler, in a press conference following the FCC's November meeting, appeared to endorse the Binge On offering, calling it pro-competitive and innovative. "It is clear in the Open Internet order that we are pro-competition and pro-innovation and clearly, this meets both of those criteria," he said. "It is highly innovative and highly competitive."
But apparently to appease the six of us that see the potential pitfalls here, the FCC boss then turned around and suggested the agency will be keeping an eye on the program:
"He said the FCC would keep an eye on Binge On per the general conduct standard in those new open Internet rules, which allows the FCC to look at such business models on a case-by-case basis.
That rule, he elaborated, says a carrier "should not unreasonably interfere with the access to someone who is trying to get to an edge provider and an edge provider who is trying to get to a consumer. So, what we are going to be doing is watching Binge On, keeping and eye on it, and measure it against the general conduct rule."
Again, T-Mobile's program may not be the most offensive net neutrality violation ever seen, but the precedent remains horrible. While T-Mobile may be more consumer friendly than other carriers, the simple act of allowing zero rating opens the door to carriers like AT&T and Verizon that are decidedly less so. Meanwhile, Wheeler may be replaced by an FCC boss with an even more flexible interpretation of "innovation" (assuming they're not busy trying to dismantle the rules entirely). This potential for preferential discrimination is why Chile, Norway, Netherlands, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Japan all moved to prohibit zero rating in some fashion.
The FCC did e-mail me to note that the "Commission staff is working to make sure it understands the new offering," but Wheeler's comments (and previous FCC statements) make it pretty clear that the agency sees usage caps and zero rating as little more than creative pricing. In other words, the agency's telling ISPs: violate net neutrality, just be creative about it. As T-Mobile's program took root, the magenta-hued character that is T-Mobile CEO John Legere was quick to applaud himself:
I don't know. The slow but steady erosion of a healthy, neutral internet to the sound of thunderous applause?