Net neutrality? It’s not complicated, AT&T

AT&T’s new toll-free data plan is a great idea. For AT&T. Everyone else, not so much.

It’s been a bit since I’ve written about net neutrality (really, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything), but it seemed right to bring the topic up again with regards to AT&T’s new toll-free data proposal:

“AT&T Inc., the country’s second-largest wireless carrier, announced Monday that it’s setting up a “1-800” service for wireless data. Websites that pay for the service will be toll-free for AT&T’s wireless customers, meaning the traffic won’t count against a surfer’s monthly allotment of data.

It’s the first major cellphone company to create a comprehensive service for sponsored wireless access in the U.S. The move is likely to face considerable opposition from public-interest groups that fear the service could discourage consumers from exploring new sites that can’t afford to pay communications carriers for traffic.”

This follows a similar, albeit smaller-scale, announcement from GoSmart mobile, a smaller subsidiary of T-Mobile. The company promised free Web access to Facebook for its customers, with Facebook footing the bill. Verizon and ESPN were in talks about a similar plan last year.

On its surface, this proposal sounds fantastic for AT&T customers. Suddenly there would be a breadth of sites that users could access for free, no data charges required. And it would give companies a chance to reach a larger consumer base.

Problem here is that it goes against the principle of net neutrality, and it stands a pretty big chance of being struck down by the FCC. And rightfully so.

While this idea is seemingly great for AT&T customers, it creates problems and conflicts with existing net neutrality law and practices. First and foremost, it creates a tier of Internet users that can afford to pay for more exposure and more accessibility from telecom companies. Giants like United Health Care can now pay AT&T for their Web site to be free to mobile users, encouraging more users to visit the site and, most likely, buy their product, instead of buying from a company that doesn’t pay AT&T for increased exposure. It gives an unfair advantage to wealthy, established companies over smaller companies and start-ups.

It violates the founding idea of the Internet: that service providers cannot discriminate between different content types and providers – if everyone is on a level playing field, it allows Internet users to access a wider variety of content. For example, it allows an Internet user to read an article in the New York Times, read a similar article on a site like Salon, and then read a rebuttal on a smaller independent blog – and the speed and ease of access to all sites would be the same.

By creating this tiered system, it not only kills the idea of a level Internet playing field for established companies and start-ups, but it allows service providers like AT&T to double dip for profits. Most mobile users pay for a plan, rather than pay as you go – meaning, they pay a monthly fee for an amount of data. By having people pay for data in advance, and then having companies pay a fee to have their site freely accessible, the cell phone companies are collecting on both ends. This proposal doesn’t cost smart phone users any less in their monthly bill, and it doesn’t give more broadband to the companies that choose not to pay extra. The only one really benefiting from this is the cell phone company.

AT&T was able to make this proposal, by the way, because of loopholes in current net neutrality law – the body of laws protecting net neutrality almost exclusively deals with prohibiting Internet service providers – cable and fiber-DSL providers – from creating a tiered system. It doesn’t specifically make laws regarding mobile phone providers, who now supply millions with Internet access (and many families with their only access, as I’ve discussed before).

The Internet was created to be a free, accessible database of information for anyone who wanted to access it, edit it, add to the base and use the information within it. To add preference to wealthy companies, and to favor access to preferred sites and providers would be to defeat the purpose and take away not only a source of information, but in a sense to limit free speech.