Recently, a coalition of technology companies and public interest groups, including DreamHost, sent an open letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking for an open and public process to inform the FCC’s evaluation of zero-rating practices. You can read the letter here.
The current consideration of zero-rating plans follows last year’s FCC decision to safeguard a free and open internet through the passage of strong net neutrality rules. The open and transparent process leading to that decision included input from the public, ultimately garnering the perspectives of hundreds of companies and nearly four million individuals, for what amounted to a rich and public debate about the importance of net neutrality. This valuable debate included the diverse testimony of CEOs, public interest groups, and civil rights leaders, sparking healthy online discourse and earning international media coverage.
It’s my strong belief, as well as that of the companies and organizations co-signing the recent letter to the FCC, that the question of how to evaluate zero-rating practices demands the same open process and wealth of perspectives seen in that discussion. A diversity of voices was essential in informing the FCC’s previous decision on net neutrality, and that in many ways this upcoming decision is just as crucial to maintaining a free and open internet.
Zero-rating plans, such as those introduced by ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, create a framework for exempting certain applications from counting toward users’ data volume caps and monthly charges. This effectively allows these mobile ISPs, which now have a user base that has surpassed that of fixed internet access, to grant a distinct advantage to their own apps or those of their business partners. This so-called zero-rating practice is anti-competitive in the worst way; it carries the strong potential to force consumers to make choices based not on which business can provide them with the best product, service, or experience, but instead on which business the ISP they use has formed an alliance with.
The greater effect of this practice is to disadvantage less established businesses and add obstacles to the processes of innovation and technological advancement. It is my personal belief, and that of DreamHost and many in our industry, that zero-rating deeply violates the spirit and goals of the FCC’s prior ruling on the open internet and net neutrality. Allowing ISPs to select content winners and losers on the Internet will have a deleterious effect on consumer choice and serve as a backdoor to defeating the equitable access that makes an open internet so vital.
At the time of the FCC’s Open Internet Order, the Commission declined to deliver a clear and unambiguous ruling against zero-rating, citing a lack of consensus at the time. However, actions by ISPs have brought this issue to a head, providing test cases for the FCC to rule on the legality of zero-rating practices, and to set precedents by doing so. These precedents would guide future decisions in this area and would broadly affect users and businesses far beyond the scope of the cases at hand.
Rather than decide these types of cases behind closed doors, we implore the FCC to invite public participation and a diversity of input and expertise in order to deliver a fully informed ruling on the impact of zero-rating practices. We believe that an open and transparent process will best serve all stakeholders affected by this ruling, and is in the best interest of a free and open internet that offers access to everyone.
Brett Dunst is VP of Brand and Community at DreamHost, a global web hosting, domain registrar and cloud services provider.