Does net neutrality mean mobile companies can’t give out free data anymore?

Tom Wheeler in Barcelona.
Tom Wheeler in Barcelona.
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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BARCELONA—It is now illegal in the United States for an internet service provider to discriminate between different types of data. Last week, America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 to classify broadband internet as a public utility, ensuring that all data is treated equally.

But there is another way to think about the net neutrality debate, and it’s playing out in poor countries around the world. Large internet companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter (as well as non-profits such as Wikipedia) have convinced mobile operators to offer their services at no cost—so-called “zero-rating.” Does that practice violate net neutrality?

Ask Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, and the answer is ambiguous. Wheeler was interviewed on stage today by as part of the Mobile World Congress, a large industry event in Barcelona, Spain. Though the Wheeler has no jurisdiction over what happens outside US borders, he was asked his opinion on whether services subsidized by governments and aid agencies constitute a violation of the idea of net neutrality.

“What we’ve said we’re going to do is look at issues like that on a case-by-case basis,” he replied, “and ask the question ‘What is the impact on consumers?’ And ‘What is the public interest served?'”

Wheeler’s interlocutor, Anne Bouverot of the GSMA, a trade association, was careful not to mention the big internet firms. But the implication was hard to miss; the main speaker in the same slot yesterday was Mark Zuckerberg. His topic:, an app that provides free access to the social network and a handful of other services. Zuckerberg and other proponents of zero-rating argue that it drives internet usage and is a net benefit for operators as well as an educational tool for new users. Opponents say that allowing free access to some services kills competition from smaller companies that people have to pay to access.

Other regulators are less sanguine. Chile’s regulator banned zero-rating last year. And in November, the Norwegian Communication Authority published a blog post that called the practice ”clearly a case of discrimination between different types of traffic.”

“This,” said Frode Sørensen, a senior advisor at the Norwegian Post and Telecommunications Authority, “is exactly the kind of situation net neutrality aims to avoid—allowing the Internet service provider to decide how we use the Internet.”