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    Should free data be a crime?

    Push for Net neutrality could backfire

    I was so busy hunting down new gadgets at last week’s
    International CES in Las Vegas that I missed out on the government’s latest bid to “improve” the Internet.

    Tom Wheeler, who is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, dropped by the convention to say the government will soon regulate the Net under a law drafted in the 1930s to oversee telephone companies.

    It’s part of the long-running effort to guarantee Net neutrality, the principle that all data on the Internet must be treated exactly alike.

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    But Net neutrality could kill off a consumer-friendly idea called sponsored data, which is popular in the developing world but is just catching on in the States.

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    Under a sponsored-data plan, a smartphone owner gets access to certain online services for little or no cost, because either the phone company or some Internet-based firm pays for the data traffic. Phone companies use sponsored data to attract more subscribers; Internet companies do it to attract more eyeballs.

    For instance, millions of people in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe don’t pay wireless data charges to use Facebook or Wikipedia, because they use sponsored-data plans offered by their local cellular carriers.

    In the United States, the best example is from the wireless carrier T-Mobile. Its Music Freedom offering, introduced six months ago, lets customers listen to the major streaming music services as much as they want, without any of it counting against their online data plan.

    T-Mobile offers a number of “unlimited” data plans. I put the word in quotes because there usually is a limit to the data you can stream at maximum 4G speeds. But with Music Freedom, customers can stream music around the clock and never touch their 4G limit. Pretty much all of the major streaming services are available, including Pandora, Spotify, Apple’s iTunes Radio, iHeartRadio, and Rhapsody.

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    T-Mobile isn’t doing this out of kindness, nor is it being paid by the music companies. It’s a clever way to win over millions of music-loving new customers; indeed it signed up 3.5 million customers in the second half of 2014.

    But critics say such services can end up monopolizing the Internet to the exclusion of competitors, and risk binding customers to a few larger providers.

    Sprint Corp. has dabbled in sponsored data. Its Virgin Mobile low-cost cellular service has an option called Virgin Mobile Custom that will sell you a cheap Android phone and an economical mix of services. You might choose 250 minutes of talk, 250 texts, and 500 megabytes of data for about $26 a month.

    But say you’re a Facebook addict. Pay them another $5 a month and you’ll get unlimited Facebook access, with no data cap.

    You can get the same deal for Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest.

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    A Seattle startup called Syntonic is trying to take the idea even further. It’s working with the wireless carrier AT&T Inc. on a system that would let any company pay for your online minutes when you visit that company’s Internet site. Syntonic has signed up a handful of well-known brands, including Amazon.com, Starbucks, the Weather Channel, and Expedia.

    Consumers have shown little interest so far. But someday a deep-pocketed media company like ESPN might use the Syntonic service to send TV shows — with commercials — to your phone, at no data cost to you.

    But among Net neutrality purists, sponsored data is a Trojan horse, designed to help big companies monopolize the Internet.

    One activist, Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, wrote this month that sponsored data is “pernicious; it’s dangerous; it’s malignant.” And, she argued, it ought to be outlawed. At least one nation, Chile, has done just that.

    Crawford fears that if Facebook, for instance, pays for your data whenever you’re logged onto it, you may end up spending most of your wireless online time on Facebook. Soon all the big boys — Google, Twitter, Pinterest — will do the same. Next thing you know, any Internet service hoping to build a mobile audience must buy a sponsorship. Companies that can’t pay are frozen out.

    Possible, but not likely. If an Internet service is valuable enough to consumers, we’ll go there — even if it drains our monthly data pool. For instance, I love opera. Will I stop listening to Internet broadcasts from La Scala and tune in Lady Gaga instead if one’s free and the other isn’t? I’d rather write the check.

    I get part of the argument for Net neutrality. Giant providers like Comcast Corp. can’t be allowed to block our access to certain online content. Nor can they be permitted to deliberately slow down certain Internet services — say, YouTube — to give their own offerings an advantage.

    But none of this is currently happening, so why the rush to regulate?

    Better to wait and see. And while we’re waiting, let’s have some of that free data.

    Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.