from the not-with-a-bang-but-with-a-whimper dept
According to a Verizon press release, companies can either pay Verizon to have their entire app or website exempted from usage caps (paying Verizon for each byte consumed), or pay Verizon a lump sum to have specific content exempted from usage caps (a video, a single audio file, or an app download). This is, according to Verizon, a wonderful way to add "value and utility" to the overall consumer experience:
"With 1 in 3 Americans now watching videos on their smartphone, and another 100 million on tablets, the business case for mobile is clear," said Colson Hillier, vice president, Consumer Products at Verizon. "In today's digital economy, FreeBee Data is a departure from the one size fits all approach to marketing. The opportunity to add value and utility to consumers' everyday experiences will fundamentally transform how brands and businesses connect with their customers."Right, well, no.
While these zero rating efforts are pitched to oblivious consumers as akin to "free shipping" or "1-800 numbers for data," they've been rightly lambasted by critics as a mammoth distortion of the traditionally-level Internet playing field. Whereas deep-pocketed companies can gain marketing advantage by throwing money at Verizon for cap-exempt status, smaller competitors, startups and non-profits won't enjoy the same luxury. Not only does sponsored data give wealthier, bigger companies an unfair advantage, it gives companies like Verizon (with a generation of documented anti-competitive behavior under its belt) far too much power.
Unlike numerous other countries (Norway, Chile, Netherlands, Japan, Slovenia), the FCC chose to specifically avoid banning zero rating, instead stating it would act on a "case by case basis" to determine what's anti-competitive, and what's just creative marketing and pricing. That has opened the door to companies being allowed to brutally violate net neutrality, provided they're just marginally clever about it.
Comcast, for example, is now exempting its own streaming service from its usage caps, claiming that it doesn't violate net neutrality because it's "delivered over Comcast's managed IP infrastructure" and not the actual Internet. T-Mobile's now throttling every video service that touches its network by default (and lying about it), but claims this is ok because users can opt out. AT&T and Verizon, meanwhile, are simply letting giant companies pay if they want to gain an utterly unfair competitive advantage over smaller, more shallow-pocketed competitors.
And so far the FCC's response to these practices has ranged from praising them to weak-kneed promises that the agency is conducting notably informal inquiries. And while it's entirely possible the FCC wants to see if its neutrality rules withstand ISP lawsuits before leaning on them too heavily, it's also entirely possible the regulator is simply too timid to actually enforce the rules the public demanded it pass.