AT&T patents a new way to skirt net neutrality on its wireless network


Ralph de la Vega, President and CEO of AT&T Mobility

AT&T has filed a patent that is could be bad news for net neutrality on the wireless Web. The patent, titled “Prevention of Bandwidth Abuse of a Communications System,” is a new way AT&T could begin picking and choosing what its users can do on its wireless networks, and punish those who stray out of line.

The patent details a process through which AT&T can monitor the type of data you’re viewing and assign credits to your bandwidth as you use it. If AT&T sees you doing things it doesn’t approve of, like Bitorrent sharing, “movie downloads,” or file sharing, then it deducts credits from you. We don’t know how many credits you’d get, but if you lose all those credits … presumably it would punish you in some way.

AT&T may only send you a strongly worded letter, but it could also cut off your data, slow down your speed, block downloads, or even ask you to pay additional fees to use that kind of data. It’s the wireless equivalent of the gold and black stars teachers use to keep students in line, but for a patent titled “Prevention of Bandwidth Abuse…” it’s open-ended nature shows real potential for abuse.

AT&TWe’re already seeing AT&T make some sketchy moves when it comes to net neutrality. Last month it announced a new Sponsored Data plan, which gives companies the chance to buy their way to your screen by paying AT&T to offer free data to download their content. This plan allows AT&T make more money by double charging. It already charges customers for Internet access and now it would also peer pressure video websites like Netflix to pay big bucks to overcome the strict data caps AT&T places on users.

In the end, the money these companies pay AT&T to get access to customers will hit our pocket books in new ways, as they increase prices.

A new level of restriction

Most AT&T Mobility customers already have monthly data caps, or bandwidth restrictions, on their accounts. While we all pay for the data on our smartphones, AT&T and Verizon have done away with unlimited plans, instead charging customers based on how much data they use, with large penalties for going over data caps, but no rewards for going under. This new patent, if implemented, would mean that AT&T would start regulating what you can use those scarce, expensive megabytes of data to do, and what you can’t.

AT&T would, through this patent, scan your data and unilaterally decide what is good (allowed) and what is bad, taking away credits from you like you’re a villain if you’re doing something it doesn’t like. Whether it’s to curb Bittorrent use, limit peak usage, or for some other motive, AT&T would control how you use the Internet.

It’s important to keep in mind that patents are just ideas. AT&T has not announced that it’s implementing any form of credit system yet, but it does read a lot like a move the carrier would try. It has a history of launching confusing, convoluted plans.

AT&T said that its ways won’t change in the wake of a troubling ruling that threw FCC’s Open Internet rules out the window, but patents like this leave a skeptical taste in our mouth.

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