New Problems for Net Neutrality: What You Need to Know

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Net neutrality is an important concept to understand — and a rare example of a philosophical principle that has more relevance to your daily life than you might imagine. Net neutrality is what protects your right to access what you want, how you want, on the Internet. But giant tech companies are playing fast and loose with net neutrality principles. As T-Mobile’s controversial Binge On program illustrates, wireless carriers and Internet service providers are developing a bad habit of taking up questionable practices and then bending the truth about how their actions actually violate the principles of net neutrality.

Dieter Bohn reports for The Verge that a significant thread running through the net neutrality debate has been making sure that Internet service providers don’t turn the Internet into “the thing those ISPs actually want, cable packages.” So far, net neutrality advocates and regulators have been successful in stopping the bundle. But they’ve been less successful at preventing the “inverse-yet-also-bad idea” of zero-rating from taking hold. Here’s why bundling and zero-rating are two opposite but significant challenges to net neutrality.

The unlikely sources of bundling

While a coalition of major tech companies — including Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Twitter, and Yahoo — has defended net neutrality, seeking to protect the Internet from net neutrality violations by ISPs and mobile carriers. The idea is that no matter what device you’re using and whose network you rely on, you’ll be able to visit the websites and use the services that you choose.

But Bohn reports that inside the software that powers these tech companies and their empires, each one is creating a different kind of bundle. “We might be winning (or at least aren’t losing) the fight against the Comcasts and Time Warners of the world, but these tech giants could be quietly undercutting us as we blithely use their gadgets and software to do our internet things,” he writes. And the bundles he’s talking about aren’t the ones that have already attracted a lot of criticism, like Facebook’s Instant Articles, Facebook’s Internet.org, and T-Mobile’s Binge On.

Instead, Bohn argues that Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Facebook M, and Google Now could all “become the other opponents to the kind of free, transparent, and open internet we all want.” Personal assistants are an effort on the part of the tech companies that own some of the world’s most valuable platforms to enable their users to more easily find information and complete tasks. While each personal assistant has its limitations, they’re useful enough that we gloss over the fact that they work only with certain parts of the Internet and with certain apps.

Personal assistants are beginning to do for the app world what Google did for the Internet; you can get Yelp results from Siri, OpenTable data from Google Now, TuneIn results from Alexa. What you can’t get is all of your options, fairly ranked, like you get from Google when you search the web. There’s no transparency about how personal assistants choose the apps or services that they return when you ask for something, and Bohn found it difficult to even get a list of every app and service that various personal assistants are able to index.

Even worse is that there’s no universal way for developers to make their apps’ content readable to every company; each has to make an index that Google read, an index that Apple can read, and so on. This lack of a universal standard makes it difficult not only for app developers, but for anyone who wants to create their own personal assistant. While it’s not necessarily a net neutrality issue that you don’t know how Siri chose the app she recommended when you asked for a hotel, it’s worth noting that the original concept of net neutrality was based on open web standards. And while apps and bots have upended the level field, our concept of a free and open Internet hasn’t caught up.

The problematic practice of zero-rating

As the White House defines it, net neutrality is a principle that “has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation — but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas.” But when we use personal assistants instead of browsers to access the Internet, then personal assistants will get to pick the winners and losers.

The same could be said of a problem that’s the technical opposite of, but is just as problematic as, the bundle: zero-rating. Zero-rating is a practice in which companies (like Facebook or T-Mobile) offer access to certain websites or services for free. The problems with zero-rating are more complicated than the problems with bundles, in part because companies can market zero-rating as an effort to save customers money — something that usually goes over pretty well among consumers who already feel like they’re paying too much for the level of service that they get.

So what’s so bad about programs like T-Mobile’s Binge On, which enables customers to stream video without it counting against their monthly data limits? T-Mobile users the service as an excuse to throttle all videos, whether they come from a participating provider or not and whether you’re downloading or streaming. Whether or not you accept wholesale the idea that zero-rating violates net neutrality principles, it’s pretty clear that throttling traffic based on application type is a net neutrality violation.

And T-Mobile isn’t the only one marketing net neutrality-violating programs as something that’s good for users. Verizon, for instance, recently introduced a program that’s much worse than T-Mobile’s. The company’s Go90 video app, which Verizon introduced to compete with video providers by offering its own bundle, now won’t count against customers’ data caps, according to T.C. Sottek at The Verge. That’s a big deal because Verizon’s data plans are so expensive.

While Verizon (and other carriers) argue that zero-rating programs are good for customers, and that they don’t violate the FCC’s net neutrality rules, Sottek notes that their arguments are based on “a market of artificial scarcity” of their own design. “The endgame of zero-rating programs is a two-way tollbooth that Verizon controls: first Verizon receives payment from customers for access to the network, then it receives payment from content providers who want unlimited access to customers, or from whatever other revenue sources it can draw from hosting an exclusive video bundle that won’t count against data caps.”

In an era where it’s widely expected that personal assistants and chatbots are going to become an increasingly central mode of accessing the Internet, it’s difficult not to worry about the new challenges confronting our handling and understanding of net neutrality.

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