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Reddit and other web companies ask FCC to reexamine free data programs

A group of companies and organizations that includes Kickstarter, Etsy, and Reddit have asked the Federal Communications Commission to take a stronger stance against “zero rating” programs that let broadband providers exempt specific services from data caps. Sent yesterday, the letter urges the FCC to establish an “open, public process” to evaluate when zero rating is acceptable — a decision that the agency has previously said it will make on a case-by-case basis.

The letter, as posted by The Hill and Engadget, has 58 total signatories. Besides the names above, it’s signed by Yelp, Vimeo, Medium, Mozilla, Foursquare, and others. It argues that while the FCC has said it will go after individual companies that abuse zero rating, “ISPs have created a broad enough set of test cases that a decision on each of them would have much the same effect as a new rule, only without the same public participation and transparency.” Instead, the group wants to see the agency take public input and use it to make a broader decision. It’s not the first recent push the FCC has gotten: a separate letter sent last month, mostly signed by advocacy organizations, condemned zero rating in stronger language.

“Zero­ rating profoundly affects internet users’ choices.”

Both groups’ protests stem from the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order, which established rules governing how internet service providers can change the speed or accessibility of different online services like Netflix or YouTube. The decision was largely hailed as a victory by supporters of net neutrality, but one of the remaining sore points was zero rating, which the FCC declined to make a firm ruling on. With zero rating, ISPs can make specific services more attractive by telling customers they won’t eat into their data allotment, as T-Mobile does with its “Binge On” program.

This isn’t a big deal for huge incumbents like Google, which has been fairly quiet in the net neutrality fight. It’s also less of an issue for wired broadband, where data caps are usually high enough that most customers won’t reach them. Even on smartphones, where data is more limited, it’s difficult to say whether (or how) it will hurt competition. But hypothetically, the practice could give new services an automatic disadvantage, making it harder for even a higher-quality new arrival to compete with an established one. Or it can explicitly promote an ISP or carrier’s own services, like Verizon’s video app. “Zero­ rating profoundly affects internet users’ choices,” the letter argues. “Giving ISPs the power to favor some sites or services over others would let ISPs pick winners and losers online — precisely what the Open Internet rules exist to prevent.”


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