Free music data is killing the free internet

If I’m out and about, I sometimes listen to music through a streaming service. The data it uses is free. It does does not eat into my monthly quota. That’s because my mobile phone service provider Optus gives free data to many of its customers using Spotify or certain other music streamers it has commercial deals with.

What’s not to like about that?

At home, Optus includes a FetchTV set top box and 35 pay channels with my broadband internet access at effectively no cost to me.

What’s wrong with that?

These apparent acts of corporate generosity are back door means of getting around the net neutrality rules. Free data for Optus' Spotify users is killing the 'free internet'.

Most users are not bothered enough to get their head around ‘net neutrality’. But it’s important, because it underlies the principle of the ‘open internet’. It guarantees consumers access to the content they want, not the content that big business wants them to access.

Without net neutrality, corporations would be free to throttle or perhaps block sites they did not want us to visit. We’d have effective access only to content that suits our provider’s commercial or ideological interest.

My FetchTV box gives me a handful of news channels. One of them is ChannelNewsAsia, the mouthpiece of the Singapore Government. The Singapore Government is the majority owner of Optus’ parent company Singtel. When I had FetchTV with my previous provider iinet, I had Chinese and Indian news channels. The Singapore Government wants us to see the world through its eyes, so it removes the Chinese and Indian channels from its particular offering of FetchTV.

Optus can do that because Fetch is just a box attached to my TV. Strictly speaking, it’s not a violation of the net neutrality rules. But they couldn’t block or throttle my access to Chinese or Indian news sites that I access through the world wide web on my computer. Not yet, anyway.

Net neutrality - i.e. the ‘open internet’ - has always been cherished as a basic consumer right. It was vigorously upheld by the Obama administration. Much of corporate America wished this was not so. But now their prayers have been answered with President Trump pick of an enemy of net neutrality - Ajit Pai - to lead the Federal Communications Commission regulating body.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that Pai has already ‘aggressively moved to roll back consumer protection regulations created during the Obama presidency’, taking a ‘first swipe at net neutrality rules designed to ensure equal access to content on the internet’.

Meanwhile Europe’s telecommunications regulator strengthened net neutrality rules last year by closing a few loopholes that allowed service providers to create ‘fast lanes’ for ‘specialised services’.

Will we follow Europe or the US? As yet, it’s unclear. What is clear is that we should expect more tricks from internet service providers keen to exploit loopholes. After floating the idea in 2015, Optus would still like to charge Netflix a fee to offer consumers ‘the best customer experience’ of Netflix. We can presume this means the worst customer experience of what other content providers have to offer.