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AT&T Data Plan Is 'a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing'

Kenneth Corbin | Jan. 10, 2014
Open Internet advocates are warning that AT&T's 'sponsored data' program could create pay-to-play mobile Web. It has also been described as a new form of double-dipping, where both customers and businesses are charged for the same data usage.

Spokespeople for AT&T did not respond to requests for comment on the criticism of its sponsored data plan.

Net neutrality has a long and winding history in Washington policy circles. At present, the FCC has a standing order that places limited restrictions on ISPs regarding how they transport data over their networks. Wireline ISPs are barred from blocking lawful content, and generally prohibited from slowing or discriminating against legitimate transmissions. Wireless providers are exempt from the nondiscrimination requirement, but cannot block content.

How data caps, and the associated business agreements such as those that AT&T's sponsored data plan envisions, fit into those rules is unclear, as the FCC has yet to stake out a position on the caps.

"This situation raises questions under the rules, but in any case the FCC has authority to look into anticompetitive acts like data caps," Cox said, "which is why we want to FCC to investigate the caps."

Whether the FCC's rules, limited as they are, will stand is another open question. Verizon sued to overturn the commission's open Internet order, and a panel of federal appellate judges appeared skeptical about the legal basis for the rules at an oral argument hearing last September.

The legal uncertainty surrounding the rules -- the court could strike all or part of the FCC's 2010 order -- casts doubt on how public-interest groups might respond to AT&T's sponsored data program. Just announced on Monday, the plan has yet to take shape and its effects on consumers remain to be seen. But Public Knowledge isn't ruling out the prospect of taking a formal complaint to the FCC, though it will continue to press for a thoroughgoing study of the impact on the broader wireless practice of data caps.

"That's hard to tell," Cox said. "Right now I think it's a little too early to say and I don't want to jump the gun there. Same thing goes for if the courts strike down the net neutrality rules."


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