As of tomorrow, it’ll be two weeks since the FCC stripped net neutrality protections from the internet here in the United States. You can read the individual commissioners’ statements online, both pro- and anti-neutrality; if you’re a true glutton for punishment, video of the entire proceeding is also available.
And many [Silicon Valley companies] thrive on the business model of charging to place content in front of eyeballs. What else is “Accelerated Mobile Pages” or promoted tweets but prioritization?
I’ll circle back to the merits of Pai’s argument. But on the face of it, I think he’s right: Google AMP, Facebook Instant Articles, and Apple News have long struck me as a kind of zero-rated access, one practiced on a fairly massive scale.
If you’re not familiar with the term, “zero-rating” refers to a practice in which internet service providers (ISPs) will exempt certain kinds of data from a user’s monthly data allotment—in other words, they’ve decided that the cost of accessing that data should be zero. In the United States, T-Mobile currently offers its customers free access to Netflix, effectively making the cost of accessing Netflix, well, zero. Somewhat more capitalistically, AT&T and Verizon both offer a “sponsored data service” that allows users to access specific content or services for free.
Zero-rating practices have always operated in a weirdly gray legal area, which the prior FCC was investigating. (The FCC’s newest chair, who made it his personal crusade to end net neutrality, swiftly ended that investigation.) But legality aside, there are a number of valid critiques of zero-rating. From a consumer’s standpoint, while these options might sound wonderful for consumers, it’s worth noting the cost of a zero-rated service isn’t really free. The service provider may subsidize free content with advertising, or the content companies may pay for this more privileged form of delivery. And if you’re inclined to support net neutrality, zero-rating presents a larger, more fundamental question: namely, how do we have network neutrality when companies pay for privileged, prioritized delivery on that network? In other words, a truly neutral network wouldn’t engage in this kind of paid-for prioritization.
The more I’ve thought about it, I think there’s a strong, clear line between ISPs choosing specific kinds of content to prioritize, and projects like Google’s Accelerated Mobile Project. And apparently, so does the FCC chair: companies like Google, Facebook, or Apple are choosing which URLs get delivered as quickly as possible. But rather than subsidizing that access through paid sponsorships, these companies are prioritizing pages republished through their proprietary channels, using their proprietary document formats.
Now, just to be clear: while I think Ajit Pai’s correct to characterize Google AMP as a kind of data prioritization, I also believe using it to justify the end of net neutrality is incredibly, dangerously disingenuous. Non-neutral ISPs have a greater potential to visit harm upon consumers—a potential far, far higher than internet companies who elect to zero-rate certain kinds of web pages.
But that doesn’t absolve those platforms—each of whom were founded under, and benefited from, net neutrality—from practicing zero-rating. If we’re going to get net neutrality back, it’s worth asking ourselves: why is our industry participating in practices that undermine the spirit of net neutrality, if not the letter?
(And it’s also worth asking why we’re handing this dude free talking points.)