Why the fuss over “sponsored data”?

Today, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, AT&T said it would begin letting content firms — Google, ESPN, Netflix, Amazon, a new app, etc. — pay for a portion of the mobile data used by consumers of this content. If a mobile user has a 2 GB plan but likes to watch lots of Yahoo! news video clips, which consume a lot of data, Yahoo! can now subsidize that user by paying for that data usage, which won’t count against the user’s data limit.

Lots of people were surprised — or “surprised” — at the announcement and reacted violently. They charged AT&T with “double dipping,” imposing “taxes,” and of course the all-purpose net neutrality violation.

But this new sponsored data program is typical of multisided markets where a platform provider offers value to two or more parties — think magazines who charge both subscribers and advertisers. We addressed this topic before the idea was a reality. Back in June 2013, we argued that sponsored data would make lots of mobile consumers better off and no one worse off.

Two weeks ago, for example, we got word ESPN had been talking with one or more mobile service providers about a new arrangement in which the sports giant might agree to pay the mobile providers so that its content doesn’t count against a subscriber’s data cap. People like watching sports on their mobile devices, but web video consumes lots of data and is especially tough on bandwidth-constrained mobile networks. The mobile providers and ESPN have noticed usage slowing as consumers approach their data subscription ceilings, after which they are commonly charged overage fees. ESPN doesn’t like this. It wants people to watch as much as possible. This is how it sells advertising. ESPN wants to help people watch more by, in effect, boosting the amount of data a user may consume — at no cost to the user.

Sounds like a reasonable deal all around. But not to everyone. “This is what a net neutrality violation looks like,” wrote Public Knowledge, a key backer of Internet regulation.

The idea that ESPN would pay to exempt its bits from data caps offends net neutrality’s abstract notion that all bits must be treated equal. But why is this bad in concrete terms? No one is talking about blocking content. In fact, by paying for a portion of consumers’ data consumption, such an arrangement can boost consumption and consumer choice. Far from blocking content, consumers will enjoy more content. Now I can consume my 2 gigabytes of data — plus all the ESPN streaming I want. That’s additive. And if I don’t watch ESPN, then I’m no worse off. But if the mobile company were banned from such an arrangement, it may be forced to raise prices for everyone. Now, because ESPN content is popular and bandwidth-hungry, I, especially if a non-watcher of ESPN, am worse off.

The critics’ real worry, then, is that ESPN, by virtue of its size, could gain an advantage on some other sports content provider who chose not to offer a similar uncapped service. But is this government’s role — the micromanagement of prices, products, the structure of markets, and relationships among competitive and cooperative firms? This was our warning. This is what we said net neutrality was really all about — protecting some firms and punishing others. Where is the consumer in this equation?

What if magazines were barred from carrying advertisements? They’d have to make all their money from subscribers and thus (attempt to) charge much higher prices or change their business model. Consumers would lose, either through higher prices or less diversity of product offerings. And advertisers, deprived of an outlet to reach an audience, would lose. That’s what we call a lose-lose-lose proposition.

Maybe sponsored data will take off. Maybe not. It’s clear, however, in the highly dynamic mobile Internet business, we should allow such voluntary experiments.

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