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Internet regulation not open or free

Net Neutrality proponents are always saying that they are promoting a more “open and free” Internet.  Last week, Susan Crawford, a former advisor to President Obama on matters concerning science, technology and innovation, wrote an article in Medium condemning a practice known as “zero rating”—where some wireless carriers offer free wireless data to access certain websites, content or applications. Essentially, consumers will have wireless access to certain online content and this access will not be counted on consumer data plans.

These arrangements are struck when the website or application voluntarily agrees to pay the carrier to allow their users free access to their content, and most would say a clear win for both the consumer and all the companies involved. The consumer gets access to content they want for free, the content creator gets the traffic and eyeballs it desires, and the carrier finds a new revenue source to help expand its networks and capacity.

{mosads}Some, however, don’t see it as a pro-consumer endeavor. Crawford claims that zero rating could cause a section of the Internet to be “walled-off” from the rest of the Internet, depriving some users of free and open access. But this just isn’t the case. Nobody is saying that non-sponsored traffic will be slowed—and nobody is advocating for a walled garden, unable to use outside services, as Crawford puts it. Consumers could always access these websites and online content as they do now – drawing off of their existing wireless data package. This is nothing more than a new form of advertising, where companies try to promote their products, content and applications. Companies are paying to get more eyeballs on their content and the deals are completely voluntary.

These sponsored data plans are about as pro-consumer as you can get. Far from walling off the rest of the Internet, they simply make it easier for fans of certain sites and applications to spend more time on those sites. Instead of paying for every site that a consumer visits, their data plan usage is preserved, making it easier to use more of his or her data on sites that don’t have sponsored data plans. So rather than consumers being weary of their wireless plan usage, this opens up users to the much wider web, in direct contrast to the fears of people like Crawford.

These new sponsored data plans are also expanding consumer choice. Many content creating companies have been getting in the game, to the delight of consumers. For instance, T-Mobile announced plans that would allow music lovers to stream for free music from iHeartRadio and Pandora. ESPN has been in talks with wireless carriers to provide their content to its users under a subsidized arrangement, as have companies like Amazon, which subsidizes the cost of book downloads to its Kindle devices.

Worry over these sponsored data plans, and the solutions to them, are merely solutions looking for a problem. As they say–if you fashion yourself as a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In this case, net neutrality proponents see content providers paying for content delivery and want to put an end to it, regardless of consumer satisfaction.

Net neutrality proponents call for the Internet to be “open and free.”  Yet, sponsored data plans will do more to “open” the Internet than any government policy could—broadband providers and content creators are creating more ways to get more “free” content to more people, especially beneficial to low-income folks, and providing a service these consumers want. In the end, the command and control regime being pushed by Net Neutrality advocates won’t make the Internet open and free –and it will cost consumers dearly.

Christenson writes on digital tech issues for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization.  For more information about the Institute, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.

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