T-Mobile announced this week that it would no longer count video-streaming from certain apps, like Netflix, toward customers' monthly data caps — it's called "zero-rating" that traffic. Sounds great, right?
But some Internet rights advocates argue the practice could be bad news for consumers.
It's the first time such a program has been offered in this country, but they're common in other parts of the world. Facebook and Wikipedia are among the entities that have launched zero-rated services in developing countries where Internet connections are more restrictive.
"This is what a free and open Internet is about," wrote T-Mobile CEO John Legere in the "Binge on" announcement. "So go for it, watch more videos, binge-watch if you want, use your high speed data more efficiently and never get burned by bill shock again."
But there's a flip side to this deal, experts point out.
"No matter what their CEO claims, this scheme violates the core principles of net neutrality," Evan Greer of the digital-rights advocacy organization Fight for the Future said in an email to NBC News. "We pay these companies to connect us to the Internet. As soon as they get involved in manipulating how we use the Internet, and do once we're online, it threatens the basic openness of the Internet and by extension the future of free expression."
"We totally support a free and open Internet," T-Mobile said in a statement provided to NBC News. "We don’t play gatekeeper and anyone who wants to join can, provided they are a legal provider and meet our simple technical criteria so we can clearly identify their video stream on our network."
A cloud for the silver lining
The announcement certainly doesn't sound gloomy: Not only did budget-plan data caps for 4G data use rise to 2 GB for many T-Mobile customers, but now many apps that would have used up that data in an hour or two won't count toward it at all. Users can watch Netflix and HBO and stream Spotify all day long without worrying about hitting that cap.
But while the new plan may prevent a few overage fees on a customer's phone bill, companies just shouldn't involve themselves in privileging certain traffic in any way, argues the Electronic Frontier Foundation's legal director, Corynne McSherry.
"We have an Internet and a whole digital economy that was built around the notion that there weren't gatekeepers," McSherry told NBC News. "ISPs are supposed to be common carriers: 'We'll carry the data, whatever it is.' Whenever we have a program like T-Mobile's, you're moving away from that model."
The FCC established strong net neutrality rules last year, prohibiting ISPs from establishing "fast lanes" for certain traffic, whether paid for or not. T-Mobile's zero-rating doesn't do that, to be sure, as Legere explained in the blog post about the program.
"We don't selectively prioritize content, like streaming video or music, in any way. It's managed like all other data." Legere wrote. "No one pays us, and we don't pay them."
The company also said the program is "open to any legit streaming service... at absolutely no cost to them."
But McSherry suggests that if a service has to go to T-Mobile at all to join the club, that's a step in the wrong direction.
"There's a new barrier in place. I have to convince T-Mobile to accept me in order to get access to those users on equal terms with everyone else. I should never have to go to an ISP and negotiate for access to their customers," she said.
Greer adds that this kind of practice can have a chilling effect on competition: "If you can watch Netflix on your phone without using any of your data, why would you ever try out a new Netflix competitor that hasn't yet cut a deal with T-Mobile?"
"We don't play gatekeeper"
But all this free data also raises a rather interesting question: If there's enough bandwidth that T-Mobile (and presumably its larger competitors) can feed the most byte-hungry apps for free all day long without creating congestion, why are data caps so restrictive in the first place?
"T-Mobile is enticing customers by offering them something for free that they shouldn't be paying extra for anyway," Greer said.
For the present, zero rating isn't being looked at by the FCC, and McSherry suggested that it won't do so as long as T-Mobile maintains its open stance and only asks for cooperation on technical issues.
"We'll see how things play out," she said. "But what people want is access to the whole Internet, not the curated Internet — even when it's curated with the best of intentions."