Opinion: Facebook and the threat to Net Neutrality

We much enjoyed a recent piece on Pando about Facebook and a scheme it has agreed with GoSmart (a T-Mobile company), in the US. This scheme allows GoSmart users to access Facebook from their mobile phone for free – for Go Smart customers on the new tariff, using Facebook on their phone wont count against their daily data allowance.

Posted on 06 January 2014 - Net Neutrality
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On first glance this looks like a great deal for the GoSmart customers and a very generous offer from Facebook. Free ‘internet’ access is always good, isn’t it?

But we’re kind of troubled by this move by Facebook.

Why? Because it’s a disguised threat to the principle of Net Neutrality.

Net Neutrality is a concept where all packets of data (those packets could be bits of a webpage, parts of an email, scenes in a video, words in a Skype call) are treated equally by the Internet, and Internet Service Providers. Packets sent from you or I should travel at the same speed and be given the same priority as packets sent by anyone else on the Internet, no matter how big or small an Internet actor they are. It is a central idea to the established concept of an open Internet.

For an approachable definition of Net Neutrality check out this Wikipedia entry. The Open Internet folks in the States have an interesting description at their site. And for a slightly acerbic but hilarious 29 minutes of your time, check out The Internet Must Go mockumentary.

Over the course of the Internet’s history, many propositions and plans have been put forward to circumvent the idea of an equal Internet based on Net Neutrality. Thus far, all have failed.

Although it might not seem like it, this scheme created by Facebook and GoSmart is  in fact a challenge to the concept of Net Neutrality. Okay, GoSmart aren’t charging it’s customers any more to use say Twitter or Hotmail; but it is charging its customers less to use Facebook than to use other websites. And that is Net Neutrality circumvented - disguised as a shiny new mobile phone tariff. 

We’re presuming Facebook and GoSmart have done a deal of some description to finance the free access to Facebook. But if Facebook is genuinely serious about making the Internet more freely accessible (in this case, to GoSmart customers), it should surely be equally concerned about making all of the Internet more accessible to those customers?

If Facebook isn’t concerned about free access to all Internet sites for those GoSmart customers, then one might come to the conclusion that it views packets going to / from the Facebook website to be somehow superior or different to other packets. And that contravenes the basic principle of Net Neutrality. It also means that other websites and services will almost certainly need to pay more...and that cost could be passed on in, increased charges. 

The simple principle of Net Neutrality is simply too important to all of us – any of us that uses the Internet for anything today. It must be protected for the future, not least because losing it will inevitably affect the way we can all use the Internet - and how much it costs the end user (that's us, the broadband customer).

The GoSmart / Facebook scheme might look like a generous, novel and perfectly innocent marketing scheme (which we’re sure it is). It might also sound like awfully small beer in the grand scheme of things.

But the threats to Net Neutrality over time are real and they have been frequent. Most importantly they can potentially be the thin-end of a hugely damaging thick wedge.

We believe anything that violates the principle of Net Neutrality must all be called out. Even a novel marketing initiative, for a mobile phone tariff.