California to ban zero-rating in net neutrality mission

In what has been described as the ‘strongest net neutrality policy proposal in the country’, Senator Scott Wiener has tightened up his proposed bill to reinstate net neutrality in California, with the updated version banning zero-rating.

While the net neutrality debate has been quite effective at gaining the support of the general public in the US, perhaps this updated version of SB 822 will catch some by surprise. Up until now legislators and advocates have drummed up backing by focusing on how the big, bad internet companies will dictate experience and service to you and will take away your freedom of choice, but it hasn’t mentioned banning zero-rating initiatives. These are offerings which consumers like and will probably want to have in the future. It’ll be interesting to see whether consumers are still as supportive when they realise net neutrality has its downsides as well.

The general public is a very fickle beast. There is certainly a better-than-thou attitude when it comes to certain issues which only have an indirect impact on the consumers life. Many will support initiatives to make the world a better place, assuming it does not hit them in the pocket. For example, many will say they support farmers or sustainability or animal welfare, but the more expensive, corn-fed, free-range organic Chicken does not fly off the shelves.

People are social warriors for positive change and fairness, until it effects their wallet. It is highly cynical of us to say and some might protest at the statement, but it is true. Most people reading this article will probably admit, if they are being completely honest with themselves, the vast majority of decisions are made with personal benefit in mind not for the benefit of society. Wiener might well find this is the case after explicitly banning a feature which benefits the consumer.

Looking specifically at zero-rating, Weiner highlights the practise is distorting and manipulating consumer choice by subsidizing favoured content. It is one way in which the telcos are influencing consumer behaviour based on commercial relationships. The important thing about net neutrality is the second word. Telcos are supposed to remain neutral when delivering the internet to the consumer.

“An open internet is essential to maintaining our democracy, growing our economy, protecting consumers, and preserving critical health, safety, and energy services,” said Senator Scott Wiener. “Internet service providers play a key role in allowing people to access the internet, but ISPs must not be allowed to decide who can access what websites or applications.

“Without net neutrality, ISPs have the power to manipulate which business, media, non-profit, or political websites are accessible and by whom. SB 822 contains strong, comprehensive, and enforceable policies that will position California as a leader in the fight for net neutrality.”

Of course, zero-rating is only one of the rules which are being discussed in the bill. After being initially introduced in January, Weiner has taken a couple of weeks to redefine the language and create a more comprehensive set of rules. We’ve outlined below the main points Weiner would like to enforce:

  • Prohibits blocking, throttling, or interfering with any content, service, or device
  • Requires that all data traffic be Application Agnostic
  • Prohibits charging access fees to services to reach consumers
  • Prohibits engaging in paid prioritization
  • Prohibits offering economic discrimination practices such as zero-rated data

This is not to say that the ISP would not be able to prohibit or prioritize traffic, but there would have to be some serious justification. There will of course be some technical reasons some traffic might have to be interfered with and this might be the make or break of the bill. Weiner will have to be very careful to build in suitable justification, accountability and transparency measures to allow for this. The language will have to be very clear and considered, as any contradiction or confusion will immediately be jumped on by ISP lawyers, possibly leading the bill to the scrap heap.

As mentioned in previous articles, we are not too sure whether such a heavy-handed approach is appropriate for the successful future of the internet and its delivery. Such comprehensive legislation doesn’t offer the ISPs the opportunity to make additional revenues. The last couple of years have demonstrated that simply being a company which delivers data plans is not enough for the telcos, which will not be a good thing.

The telcos have to be given the opportunity to make money, not because the fat-cats have got used to bonuses, but because cashflow directly impacts the amount which is allocated in the CAPEX column. The less money the telcos make, the less will be directed towards CAPEX, which will potentially impact the performance of the network. If the telcos are making less money, they are spending less on tackling the increased consumption of data. This is a net loss in the long-run and we do not think this is a nuance of the argument which has been considered by Weiner and his army of preachers.

We’ve said this numerous times, but the partisan nature of US politics is its own worst enemy. Left-sided regulation is going too far to limit the activities of the telcos, while the right-sided wild west would not be healthy for the ecosystem. The pendulum is swinging too aggressively, and we hope it won’t be too long before the fair, responsible and appropriate middle-ground is found.