Verizon's Illegal App Blocking

What if your Internet service provider told you what kind of computer you could use and what kind of software you could run on it? Would you stand for it?

It's not a theoretical question. Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile — with Google's help — are blocking applications they don't like (in this case, wireless tethering apps) from Google's Android Market.

All of the carriers are harming innovation by blocking these apps. But in Verizon's case, its actions are illegal. That's because it's the only carrier bound by meaningful openness conditions.

Two years ago, the FCC licensed Verizon to use a valuable chunk of the public airwaves — or spectrum — for its 4G data service. Thanks to Free Press' efforts, this spectrum came with a set of "open access" conditions: Verizon could not block any devices or applications from connecting to its new 4G network.

But asking Google to remove wireless tethering apps — which turn smartphones into Wi-Fi hotspots — from the Android Market effectively blocks them from being used on all of Verizon's networks, including 4G — a direct violation of the FCC's open access rules.

To protest, we at Free Press filed a complaint with the agency, asking it to "immediately investigate this apparent violation of its rules and assess all appropriate penalties."

That was a start. Now, Barbara van Schewick, a law professor at Stanford Law School, has written the FCC to urge it to invite public comments on the issue.

Van Schewick's concerns aren't just about any app getting blocked — though that's a problem too. She's also worried about the fact that Verizon is specifically blocking Wi-Fi apps:

These free and low-cost applications represent an important innovation in the development of the mobile Internet — they allow users to attach multiple devices to a single broadband connection.

As she describes, Verizon's violation goes right to the heart of the fight for an open Internet:

Allowing network providers to pick winners and losers online — whether by actively blocking particular applications or simply by making them more difficult to use — harms application-level innovation.

The carriers' own rationale for blocking tethering apps is clear enough: They want to charge their customers up to $30/month to do what these apps do for free.

But mobile users already pay high rates for mobile data plans (and they're getting higher thanks to new data caps). Whether these plans are unlimited or capped, the type of applications and data we use — or the devices we use to access them — shouldn't matter.

In the next few years, more and more of our media will flow over 4G networks. Today, it's tethering; tomorrow, it might be video. If we want an open and innovative wireless media, we need the freedom to use the devices and applications we want, however we want.

As we experience this huge technological shift, we need to protect consumers from carrier abuse, lest Verizon and its friends become emboldened to take advantage of us even more. Go here to urge the FCC to open up an investigation into Verizon's illegal actions.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good