Google has been a pretty consistent advocate for net neutrality in the United States but it apparently doesn’t feel the need to be as strong a supporter in other countries. The Information has a new report out detailing how Google plans to make mobile data in emerging markets cheaper for consumers by picking up the data consumption tab for things like app updates… but only for its own apps and the apps of special partners.
“Data costs are still stifling app usage in emerging markets like India, spurring Google to talk to third-party app developers about discounting data costs for their users,” writes The Information. “Zero rating has been around for years but typically comes in the form of one-off deals between a wireless carrier and an individual app developer like Facebook and WhatsApp. It is then promoted by both parties to their customers. The Google effort aims to be much broader, potentially allowing any developer to zero-rate the mobile data used by their app.”
It isn’t hard to see how this could be hugely problematic for net neutrality. If Google is able to pay money to wireless carriers to ensure that its own apps get exempted from being billed to wireless users then it immediately puts any other competing apps at a major disadvantage.
For instance, you know how Microsoft has been winning acclaim lately for its Outlook email app that directly competes with Google’s Gmail app? Well if Google’s plan comes to fruition, consumers in these countries effectively wouldn’t have the option to use this awesome new app unless Microsoft agreed to similarly pay up.
While Microsoft could certainly afford to pay off these kinds of costs, smaller startup apps could not. This means that the next WhatsApp, Tinder, Snapchat or Instagram would be strangled in the womb because such smaller players wouldn’t be able to pay for their apps’ data transmission costs.
As Android Police explains, “developers work with Google to get their apps zero-rated, and Google works with the carriers to zero-rate all the developers it represents… the program isn’t attempting to make all of your mobile data usage free, though.”
One reason the Internet has been so revolutionary in terms of products and services has been that online commerce has fairly few barriers to entry — if you create a high-quality product and people like it, you get rewarded for it in an open marketplace. “Sponsored data” programs like this create artificial barriers to entry that put upstart companies at a permanent disadvantage.
Let’s be real here: Google is essentially trying to create the same kind of “sponsored data” program that net neutrality advocates ripped AT&T for trying to start here in the U.S. While consumers in these markets will undoubtedly be happy to get some of their mobile data paid off by Google and other app developers, the damage that this program does to fair competition in online commerce could be severe.