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An Activist Comes Out for Zero-Rating

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission is currently vetting zero-rating plans to see if they square with chairman Tom Wheeler’s mantra of “competition, competition, competition” in general and the Open Internet order’s specific prohibition of anything that would “unreasonably” disadvantage access to lawful conduct under the general-conduct rule.

Zero-rating plans by Internet-service providers don’t count traffic related to some specific online services — say Netflix — toward a user’s data consumption.

Isaac Mance, founder of #MobileLikeMe, has been urging the FCC, with an assist from spokesman and activist actor Hill Harper (The Sopranos, CSI: NY), not to impose a ban on the practice, as some activist groups have been calling for.

Mance and Harper made their point by gathering more than 40,000 signatures, by rallying with free data supporters outside the FCC during its Oct. 27 public meeting and by later meeting with FCC commissioners to press their case.

Mance spoke with Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about why he thinks zero-rating plans boost, not restrict, Internet access. Here’s an edited excerpt of their conversation.

MCN:What is #MobileLikeMe?

Isaac Mance: It is a grassroots movement to protect access to the Internet over mobile devices.

What we have found is there are a lot of people who are still phone-dependent, meaning they only access the Internet from their phone. We are trying to increase usage of the Internet, especially critical information.

MCN:Where do you get your funding?

IM: We’re not backed really by anyone. I started the organization because I wanted to close the digital divide. We’re not a big political action group. We are a nonprofit with a lot of hard-working volunteers.

MCN:So, you are not backed by big ISPs?

IM: No.

MCN:Last week, you delivered petitions to the FCC asking it not to ban zero-rating.

IM: We want to make sure that we don’t limit any of the opportunities to provide sponsored data, free data. If you are using your cellphone to watch, say, a Netflix movie, it could hit your data plan and if you go over, there could be a huge thank you note of $200 to $300. We want to make sure that the FCC allows a Verizon or T-Mobile or Sprint to offer vendor content on a mobile device or tablet that does not count against your data plan.

MCN:But critics say that amounts to favoring some content over others, which is why they want to ban it.

IM: We have heard that argument that it would be against net neutrality. But the reality is that if you allow it for Netflix, for example, then they can use their data plan to download other data. What you are actually doing is allowing more access to the Internet.

We think it is actually the opposite of violating network neutrality. You are actually allowing for more choices and options because if you took that away, then you are limiting the amount of data people can use.

MCN:Are you OK with looking at such plans on a case-by-case basis?

IM: We are in favor of a case-by-case approach because we want to make sure people have choices. I think if there is a blanket ban on free data, you are hurting far more people than you help.

While we may or may not favor this or that approach, we are in favor of the consumer having a choice.

MCN:How did Hill Harper get involved?

IM: We were both talking about this issue, and Hill actually contacted us. Hill has a lot of causes that support lower income and minorities, and especially entrepreneurs, so he looked at it as giving people access to the Internet to explore their creativity.

MCN:What prompted you to start the group?

IM: I have always been an advocate for [closing] the digital divide, especially as it applies to low-income and minorities. But as I researched it, I found out how many people only accessed the Internet through their cellphones.

MCN:The FCC received your 40,000-plus online petitions via the website. Why did you and Hill feel the need to go in person?

IM: We have found that when other people see they are not alone, they are more likely to sign the petition.

MCN:And you got to meet with the commissioners.

IM: Yes. Harper definitely helped in opening some of those doors. I think it started a very good dialogue.

MCN:What is your next step?

IM: To keep the dialogue open and increase public awareness of this issue. We need to make sure that, especially with this election coming up, that this new regime and its policies do not eliminate free data.