from the a-duck-is-still-a-duck dept
And while these programs all laugh in the face of neutrality, many users still tend to applaud the horrible precedent because they believe -- despite paying an arm and a leg for wireless data -- that they're getting something for free.
T-Mobile has been perhaps the most creative in exploiting this belief and implementing zero rating, now exempting some 90 video services from user usage caps and throttling these services to 1.5 Mbps (or 480p) unless a user opts out. But neutrality advocates have repeatedly noted this idea still violates net neutrality given that thousands of startups, educational orgs, and non profits still aren't whitelisted -- and may not even realize they're being discriminated against.
And while T-Mobile has done some great things for consumers the last few years, T-Mobile's response to these concerns has been relatively pathetic, vacillating between lying about how the program works, to insulting net neutrality supporters like the EFF while fighting real net neutrality rules and Title II reclassification. Yet because many in the public don't understand the horrible precedent and just think it's really groovy they're getting free stuff -- T-Mobile's Binge On, happily lives on.
But a new study out of Northeastern University doesn't have much nice to say about T-Mobile's "consumer friendly" zero rating program. The researchers found numerous problems with Binge On, including the fact that T-Mobile's promise of 480p video quality is consistently less:
"T-Mobile says that the resolution for Binge On streaming is 480p (progressive scan) or better, which is considered standard for DVD movies. However, the researchers did not find evidence to back up these claims. In their trials using YouTube, the resolution was only 360p, noticeably blurry on a modern smartphone.They also found that T-Mobile's systems not only had trouble accurately detecting video services:
"T-Mobile’s detection methods are very simple, so there’s no way they can always be right,” he says. "That means that Binge On is likely slowing down traffic that is not video. This raises serious concerns about compliance with the Open Internet Order."And they found that the system was manipulable by clever T-Mobile users, potentially allowing them to zero rate services not covered by the program:
"Those simple methods open the door to exploitation as well, allowing subscribers to get free data even for non-video content. The researchers developed simple software that manipulates internet traffic so that it looks like video. For example, it makes any web content—web pages, app downloads, and photos—look like YouTube traffic. “We realized we could make any network traffic zero rated by just putting the right text in the right place," says Choffnes. "That is a security vulnerability -- it's potentially an open cash register that people can take from."So in short, the report notes that T-Mobile's Binge On isn't accurate, is exploitable, and reduces video quality more than T-Mobile claims. T-Mobile (and zero rating supporters) argue that what T-Mobile's doing is ok simply because users can opt out. But the researchers noted that putting the onus to opt out on frequently non-technical consumers doesn't somehow magically mean net neutrality isn't violated by the underlying precedent. The researchers argue that regardless of public opinion on the subject -- the T-Mobile Binge On is still a net neutrality violation however you'd like to slice it:
"The internet has been hugely successful because it enables innovation, where all new internet applications receive the same network service as incumbents -- it's a level playing field," says Choffnes. "T-Mobile’s policy gives special treatment to video providers that work with them. What if every ISP did this, but in a different way? In such a world, the next Netflix, Hulu, or Pied Piper might never get off the ground because keeping up with ISPs and their policies would leave them chasing their tails."There's several reasons why we're not seeing the backlash to zero rating we've seen elsewhere in the net neutrality fight. One, again, consumers think they're getting something for free, and don't understand that usage caps are entirely arbitrary constructs to begin with, and not actually even useful for managing network congestion (should it even actually exist). Zero rating also is seeing support from companies that historically supported net neutrality (Google, Netflix) because these companies are benefiting from the additional traffic and ad eyeballs these programs send their direction.
But because consumers don't really understand the slippery slope they're happily having a picnic on -- and Silicon Valley companies are willing to turn a blind eye to these types of net neutrality violations because they profit off of them -- doesn't magically mean what T-Mobile is doing is a good idea.
With the FCC's net neutrality rules now on more secure footing after their major legal win, all eyes now turn to what the FCC intends to do about broadband usage caps and zero rating. While many countries (India, Japan, The Netherlands, Chile) understand the bad precedent at play here and have banned zero rating outright as anti-competitive, the FCC decided to weigh the anti-competitive impact of zero rating on a "case by case basis." And while the FCC is currently conducting a rather glacial inquiry into caps and zero rating, ISPs so far have been allowed to employ the practice with relative impunity.
In short, the FCC's failure to ban zero rating opened the door to net neutrality violations, provided an ISP is just clever about it. Without Netflix or Google's support, and with consumers believing they're benefiting from such models, the FCC is seeing notably less political pressure to act. So while it's wonderful that we've got shiny new net neutrality rules freshly upheld by the court system, they may wind up being useless as carriers and ISPs tap dance over, under and around them -- to thunderous public applause.