The Net Neutrality Zero Rating Inquisition vs. the FCC

Historically accurate or not, the “Spanish Inquisition” is a well-known metaphor in literature for a group of intolerant elites that demanded orthodoxy from people, under threat of extreme consequences for heresy.

The twenty first century’s new technocratic elites, who politically made up net neutrality policy over the last fifteen years, are now sadly trying to dictate net neutrality orthodoxy on all the people of the world, whether or not they use the Internet.

These net neutrality absolutists are now accusing innovators of Internet “zero rating” plans, i.e. toll-free data plans, of net neutrality heresy, which must be punished severely with PR torture and banishment, in order to set an example for the masses of what happens to those who dare to challenge the church of net neutrality absolutism.

Recently in India, today’s modern day leaders of the Zero Rating Inquisition, Access Now activists, have demonized Facebook for the net neutrality heresy of offering a free stripped-down version of Internet access called “Free Basics” to the roughly billion Indians who can’t afford Internet access.

A rational person would say Facebook’s Free Basics offering is great and a very helpful innovation, because it’s so similar to the good of a library, school, or hospital that offers free services to the poor.

However, the net neutrality absolutists, who claim to be champions of free speech, are incensed that Facebook would empower a type of Internet free speech that is not pre-approved by them.

The intolerant Access Now activists have smeared Facebook’s “Free Basics” as “digital slavery,” “digital apartheid” and selling “only its branded cocaine.” Their intolerant PR torture and mob incitement tactics have succeeded in intimidating India’s regulator to suspend Facebook’s Free Basics offering in India.

How is that neutral?

Recently in the U.S., today’s Zero Rating inquisitors are targeting T-Mobile’s “Binge On” free video streaming offering for net neutrality heresy.

What is “Binge On?” To differentiate its service, T-Mobile transparently offers its users the choice to stream a wide variety of top video programming, from a broad array of video streamers, for free, because T-Mobile does not count these bandwidth-optimized video streams as data use in their monthly data allowance.

Consumers and video streamers get more choice and it is voluntary all around. Consumers get more data and more video streaming for less. What’s not to like?

Leave it to the Net neutrality absolutists to rain on consumers’ “Binge On” parade. Now they are charging that this rational, universal, T-Mobile network management technique to offer more people, more video streams for free, is prohibited “throttling” under the FCC’s Open Internet order. 

This net neutrality absolutism is nuts, if you consider its implications. 

How can Facebook’s free Internet access for the poor and unconnected be a bad thing, if free WiFi Internet access for the affluent is a good thing?

How is getting Internet access for free, for those who have no Internet access -- bad?

How can one rationally explain that a free and open Internet is not open to free Internet access?

Who decided for the half of the world’s population that are Internet have-nots, that net neutrality absolutism for the Internet haves, is more important than any Internet access for the Internet have nots?

Who decided openly, transparently, and explicitly that the commercial interests of the edge elites should trump the commercial interests of both current and new Internet users?

And how can the FCC believe they have “bright line” net neutrality rules in their Open Internet order, when it is so unclear to most everyone where the actual line is that delineates what is acceptable Internet conduct and innovation that is good for users, versus what is an unacceptable net neutrality violation and bad for edge interests?  

What does all this mean?

While the FCC’s Open Internet Order is under court review to determine whether or not the FCC’s net neutrality rules and future Internet conduct standard are arbitrary and capricious, don’t expect the FCC, on its own devices, to adopt a net neutrality absolutist approach on zero rating offerings.

There is arguably no worse public signal that the FCC could send to the reviewing court, which has twice overturned the FCC for net neutrality overreach, than trying to ban zero rating plans that reasonably offer consumers more choice, and more usage and value for less cost. The FCC knows better.  


Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, a research consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, and Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests.