The Scourge Of Zero Rating

It seems like every week I read another article about a mobile carrier offering some incredible deal to eat the mobile data costs you rack up using certain apps.

The most recent was the news that Sprint will sell at data plan that “only connects to Facebook and Twitter”.

Many on the Internet are up in arms about “net neutrality” amid concerns that the wireline carriers will discriminate between or block applications on their networks. I’m a supporter of net neutrality regulations, but it’s worth pointing out that wireline carriers haven’t done a lot of discriminating and blocking on their networks over the past 20 years of the commercial internet.

And yet in mobile data, there is discrimination and blocking all over the place. The main kind of discrimination is called “zero rating” in which a mobile carrier makes a deal with certain applications to eat the mobile data charges a user racks up when using certain apps. A good example of that is T-Mobile’s deal with a bunch of music apps announced back in June.

The pernicious thing about zero rating is that it is marketed as a consumer friendly offering by the mobile carrier – “we are not charging you for data when you are on Spotify”.

But what all of this zero rating activity is setting up is a mobile internet that looks a lot more like cable TV than our wide open Internet. Soon a startup will have to negotiate a zero rating plan before launching because mobile app customers will be trained to only use apps that are zero rated on their network.

I strongly encourage policy makers, policy wonks, internet activists, and anyone who cares about protecting an open internet for all to take a hard look at zero rating. Like all the best scourges, it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.