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Public Knowledge stokes zero-rating debate

A new study from Public Knowledge, a staunch net neutrality advocate, casts a shadow over the future of zero-rated data service plans such as T-Mobile’s Music Freedom service, which allow users to stream music without using up their 4G LTE data plans.

When the FCC passed its open Internet order, the newly empowered agency said it would tackle zero-rating programs—services that do not incur data costs and are exempt from data usage counts—on a case-by-case basis.

That leaves marketing programs such as T-Mobile’s Music Freedom plans in a sort of regulatory limbo.  Does allowing users to “stream at the music you want…from a great selection of the most popular music services…without using your 4G LTE data on our network” violate the principles of net neutrality by discriminating against the music services that aren’t offered as part of Simple Choice?  And T-Mobile has just raised the zero-rating stakes by adding Apple Music to its Music Freedom plans on Tuesday.

The opening rationale for the Public Knowledge report is “to inform this ongoing critical debate” by examining the zero-rating policies, practices and rationales in five countries. But by page five, Public Knowledge said it remains “skeptical of such practices because of their potential to be wielded in very discriminatory ways.”

The report spends a number of pages reviewing how five countries treat zero-rated service and, in particular, Facebook’s, which has become an international whipping boy of zero-rating critics.

Some of the critiques that PK has compiled include those of digital rights advocates who worry about user privacy and security.  Their reason: all browsing on takes place through a Facebook proxy, which does not allow SSL or HTTPS encryption.

Critics also worry that zero-rating can create market barriers to newcomer applications who do not have the market power to strike similar deals with mobile carriers and “when the company providing Internet access is the same that provides Internet content, it limits cultural diversity and restricts the free flow of information on the Internet.”

This week Facebook celebrated the one-year anniversary of, stating that more that dozen mobile operators across 17 countries is giving more than a billion people access to basic internet services without data charges.

Mark Zuckerberg defended in his Facebook blog earlier this year, stating “arguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access or to deprive people of opportunity. Eliminating programs that bring more people online won’t increase social inclusion or close the digital divide. It will only deprive all of us of the ideas and contributions of the two-thirds of the world who are not connected.”