We've discussed many times now how zero rating, or the carrier act of letting some
apps or services bypass a user's broadband usage cap, sets a horrible, dangerous precedent
. By its very nature, letting one company or service bypass usage caps immediately puts non-whitelisted services, small businesses or non profits at a disadvantage, tilting the entire playing field and distorting the entire democratic nature of the Internet. For some reason, this is a very difficult concept for some consumers to understand, so lathered up they are by the initial lure of getting something for "free."
Of course you're not getting something for free. Usage caps are entirely arbitrary, untethered from financial or network performance necessity. They're an artificial construct, and allowing some services to bypass them (for a fee or otherwise) puts the ISP in the powerful position of picking winners and losers, instead of just doing its job
(the delivery of bits). When it comes to net neutrality, the battlefield is no longer focused on ham-fisted throttling or blocking of services, it has shifted to more nuanced and clever abuses of gatekeeper power including interconnection
, usage caps, and zero rating
Last year T-Mobile introduced
its first foray into zero rating called Music Freedom. Under the program, the biggest and most popular music services no longer count against user usage caps. That's great if you're, say, Spotify or Pandora, but not so great if you're an independent streaming radio station operating out of Cleveland, or an innovative new startup not yet on most users' radar. This kind of practice does
violate neutrality, even if most regulators are painfully
and utterly oblivious
to the problem, but the violation isn't as idiotically obvious as the kind of neutrality infractions we're used to.
With its music zero rating efforts well underway, T-Mobile is now rumored to be planning to zero rate the biggest video services
including Netflix, Sling TV and HBO. While the plan isn't supposed to be unveiled until November 10, early news of the plan was revealed on Twitter by reliable leaker and reporter Evan Blass:
T-Mobile CEO John Legere tried to re-inflate the hype balloon, but Blass offered up even more details about T-Mobile's plan, noting that HBO, Sling TV, Netflix and Hulu all appear to have been usage-cap whitelisted under the looming program:
To be clear, Legere's brash demeanor is entertaining as hell in the normally dull telecom sector; his profanity-laden tirades and amusing press releases
second to none. But when it comes to net neutrality, Legere has proven to be just as tone deaf
as the stodgy duopoly sector counterparts his character mocks on a weekly basis. Legere opposed Title II reclassification and tougher neutrality rules for all the usual nonsensical reasons
, including claims that protecting net neutrality would "kill innovation and competition."
And when the anti-competitive nature of his zero rating ambitions were first pointed out, Legere insisted he was "genuinely surprised
" by the backlash to such a "pro consumer" idea. But even wearing magenta high tops, zero rating is zero rating. Give consumers the choice of a service that's cap exempt and a service that isn't, they'll pick the cap-exempt service the majority of the time. That's a wholesale distortion of competition
(pdf), and it's a carrier injecting itself into the position of middle man in an Internet app and service ecosystem that's healthier and more competitive with them out of the way.
And while plenty of consumers, reporters, and analysts will be superficially thrilled by such a model, letting a carrier give preferential treatment to one app over another sets the stage for a future Internet where startups and independents are relegated to the outer fringes of the 'Net. It's a neutrality slippery slope we seem intent on running directly toward, cheering all the way.