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Zero-rating – where carriers charge nothing or very little for the data used by specific apps and web services – is a threat to net neutrality, web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has warned.
The practice is becoming very popular, with mobile operators in particular making special offers that exempt services such as [company]Facebook[/company] and [company]Spotify[/company] from customers’ normal data caps. This steers users to those specific services and harms their rivals, whose traffic becomes much more expensive to the user.
Berners-Lee slammed zero-rating on Tuesday in a guest post on the blog of EU digital single market commissioner Andrus Ansip, who is a staunch supporter of net neutrality and is currently trying to get EU member states to agree to the strong net neutrality rules voted through by the European Parliament last year.
However, those rules don’t call out zero-rating, also known as positive price discrimination, as a net neutrality violation. The European Commission has also so far held back from defining it as such.
Here’s what the web pioneer wrote in his pro-net-neutrality piece:
Of course, [net neutrality] is not just about blocking and throttling. It is also about stopping ‘positive discrimination’, such as when one internet operator favours one particular service over another. If we don’t explicitly outlaw this, we hand immense power to telcos and online service operators. In effect, they can become gatekeepers — able to handpick winners and the losers in the market and to favour their own sites, services and platforms over those of others. This would crowd out competition and snuff out innovative new services before they even see the light of day.
I asked Ansip’s office whether he agreed with Berners-Lee’s views, and was told that, although the guest posts don’t reflect official Commission positions, Ansip considers the post to be “an important contribution to the debate on net neutrality.”
As things stand, the Latvian presidency of the Council of the European Union – the body that represents the government of member states – is busy working out its position on the EU’s almost-concluded Telecoms Single Market Regulation, which includes the new net neutrality laws.
Under the Council’s previous Italian presidency, leaks suggested that the member states were going to dilute the net neutrality provisions by making them aspirational rather than set in stone. However, the Commission and Parliament both pushed back hard, and negotiations are ongoing.
The Council indicated in January that, although some member states were keen on banning zero-rating, opposition from other member states meant there wasn’t enough support to insert an explicit clause about this into the new regulation.
If anyone wants to hassle the Latvian presidency of the Council about the need for strong net neutrality rules, Berners-Lee supplied a handy pre-written tweet. It might also be worth reminding them that the U.S. looks set to embrace strong net neutrality – ironically, a year ago the old Commission was taunting the U.S. for dithering on net neutrality when Europe was preparing to take a firm stance.