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What will the internet look like without net neutrality? Just ask this sponsored data app

Net neutrality, Freeway app

At first glance, Freeway looks like a good app. Through partnerships with content providers and mobile networks, Freeway can let users on limited wireless rate plans use services like YouTube, Facebook, and Spotify without eating into their precious data allowance. In return, Freeway charges a couple bucks per month through a mobile app, and also leverages sponsorships.

In theory, it’s a neat way to help consumers access services without paying for an unlimited data plan or massive overage fees. But in practice, it creates the exact kind of anti-competitive environment net neutrality advocates are so afraid of.

Freeway has a couple different packages and tiers, all with different pricing that varies by carrier:

  • Basic Bundle: YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Spotify
  • “Headphones In”: Amazon Music, iHeart Radio, Pandora, Spotify, and SoundCloud
  • “Data Defense”: Sports bundle with ESPN, Facebook, LiveScore, Ballpark, MLS, NBA, NBC Sports, Twitter, and Yahoo! Fantasy Sports
  • “Study Break”: Bumble, HBO Now, Instagram, Lyft, Spotify, Starbucks, Tinder, Twitter, Venmo, and YouTube
  • “Backseat Drivers”: “Cut the Rope: Magic,” Disney Junior, Nick Junior, PBS Kids Video, YouTube Kids

Two things stand out about the packages: they sound a lot like cable bundles; and they’re comprised only of brands you’ve heard of. That’s because Freeway is essentially pay-to-play: only the big companies are worth partnering with (or can afford to sponsor data), so you’re only going to see big names on there.

The bundling of different services together is another cable TV trick that refuses to die. It’s a form of (generally legal) price discrimination, and it’s designed to extract the maximum amount of money from consumers. Rather than charging a la carte for each service you want to access without using data, you have to buy a bundle — so you’ll almost definitely end up paying for something you don’t use. Most people don’t have a subscription to more than one music service, so bundling Spotify and Amazon Music together is evidently anti-consumer.

Even if you’re thinking that none of this matters and Freeway sounds good for you because you can binge YouTube on the go, there’s a downside. Allowing this kind of service discrimination to become normalized is exactly what net neutrality is supposed to stop, because of what it could do to a free and open internet. Imagine trying to set up a Spotify competitor, but before you can get consumers to sign up, you have to make a bunch of deals with wireless carriers to have “sponsored” data, which you likely can’t afford. It makes starting up a business far more costly, and gives even more incumbent power to the established companies.