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The Top 10 Ways Mobile Carriers Tried to Screw Us in 2011

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Another year, another 12 months in which the mobile carriers did their best to screw us.

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon do so many bad, annoying and anti-consumer things that it's almost impossible to document it all. So below is a catalog of simply the most egregious acts the carriers perpetrated this year.

Each
company has its own special way of screwing its customers. But some trends
emerged. All of the carriers tried to charge us more for text messaging and
data. They were all keen to grab our sensitive data to sell to marketers or --
in some cases -- give to the government. And Verizon twice showed that it's
willing to block apps from reaching our phones -- even when those apps come
straight from the Googleplex.

Above
all, AT&T showed that squeezing every last penny out of us isn't enough to
satisfy its bottomless need for profits, so it decided it needed to buy
T-Mobile to kill wireless competition for good. Thankfully, the FCC and the Justice
Department -- along with millions of Americans -- saw the light and the deal is
as good as dead.

Read
on for the full list.

10.
The Carriers Hold Customer Data for Years

Surprise,
surprise: The cellphone carriers are retaining all
kinds of data about you
-- including your calling history, Web-browsing
history and text messages -- for much longer than you would have thought.

In
fact, did you realize they were collecting this info at all?

AT&T
holds
on to your call records
for five to seven years. And Verizon retains
the content of text messages
for three to five days and logs your Web-browsing
history for a year.

At
least Verizon is being (somewhat) transparent about what it's doing: It
recently told subscribers (by mail, but still) about its data-collection scheme
and offered them the chance to opt out.

9.
Apple Files Patent to Block iPhone Cameras

Apple
is technically not a carrier, but it's so dominant in the mobile space, I'm
making an exception for it.

Last
summer, reports surfaced that Apple had filed a patent for software that would
sense when iPhone users were trying to use their phones' cameras at live events
-- and disable them.

Imagine
if the governments of Egypt or Libya had this technology during the Arab
Spring, or if law enforcement in the U.S. could use it to block documentation
of police abuse during the Occupy protests. It's pretty easy to see why this
patent is a bad thing. Free Press delivered the signatures of more than 25,000
activists who urged
Apple to pull the plug
on the idea.

8.
AT&T Raises Texting Rates

For
the second time in a year, AT&T
eliminated lower-cost text-messaging pricing plans
, forcing users to
pay either $20 for unlimited texts or 20 cents per text message.

Tech
blogs were quick to note that even though text messaging costs the carriers
almost nothing, they still see fit to hike up rates to squeeze more out of
their customers.

In
addition, Gizmodo crunched the numbers and reported that AT&T's new plan overcharges users
by 10,000,000 (yes, that's 10 million) percent.

Consider
this: A streaming movie on Netflix is typically about 3.5 GB in size. That means
that if we paid the same rates for broadband data as we pay for texting data,
it would cost us about $5 million to stream Ishtar!

7.
Unlimited Data Plans Are Dead. Long Live Unlimited Data!

The
trend in 2011 was to end "all you can
eat" data plans
to which many early iPhone and Android users had
become accustomed (and addicted). By now, AT&T and Verizon both charge
users who exceed their plans' data caps, and T-Mobile slows down users'
download speeds. Sprint allows unlimited data use on smartphones -- but if
you're using your phone as a mobile hotspot or connecting directly with a
tablet or laptop, Sprint will cap your data use and charge you too. There is no
national carrier that isn't trying to cut consumers off or overcharge them,
whether the network is congested or not.

Carriers
are quick to point to the small number of users who hit this cap, seemingly
forgetting that today's bandwidth hog is tomorrow's average user. As we consume
more and more content on mobile networks, we're going to run up against 2GB
data caps sooner rather than later. And then we'll all have to face outrageous
overage charges.

Worst
of all, these caps and overcharges may have a particularly severe impact on
historically disadvantaged groups. People of color
are disproportionately dependent on the mobile Web
. So when a
carrier decides to limit data use, many people could find their only connection
to the Internet -- for work, for family, for play -- severed. And they will face
truly shocking bills for exceeding data limits.

6.
MetroPCS Fires Shot at Net Neutrality

A
new pricing scheme from MetroPCS -- the fifth-largest mobile phone carrier and a
popular carrier with low-income households -- was the latest round in the phone
industry's war against Net Neutrality.

Under
its new plan, wireless customers are charged extra if they want meaningful
access to Netflix and other applications, or websites that use "advanced HTML."
MetroPCS clearly isn't worried about network congestion, though, because it
allows all of its users unlimited access to YouTube. Instead, the company is
actively trying to create a new walled garden on the Internet, a new digital
divide where some have access to the entire open Internet and others can reach
only the content and applications of MetroPCS' choosing.

The
FCC passed weak Net Neutrality rules at the end of 2010 that barely protect
mobile users. And yet MetroPCS' plan
manages to break those rules anyway
.

The
next step for MetroPCS? Joining Verizon in suing the FCC to get rid of any
rules that protect mobile users -- including the rules it broke with its new
plans.

5.
Verizon Sues to Kill Net Neutrality

The
FCC passed its Open Internet rules in December 2010. They contain some
protections for online speech on wired Internet connections but barely protect
mobile Internet users. Thanks to paperwork and bureaucracy, those rules weren't
actually "published" -- that is, made official -- until September 2011. And the
minute that happened, Verizon announced it was suing to roll them back.

The
move was expected, if a tad ironic, given that a year before Verizon and Google
had released a policy proposal that was awfully similar to the rules the FCC
eventually passed. Nevertheless, Verizon -- along with MetroPCS, which joined
the suit -- has apparently decided that any rules protecting the public are bad
rules, even if they were watered down by Verizon itself.

4.
Carrier IQ and Cellphone Spying

Last
month independent researcher Trevor Eckhart posted a video that showed how a hidden application
called Carrier IQ is tracking what millions of people write, view and search
for on their mobile phones. The public was outraged.

It
turns out that Carrier IQ, the eponymous company behind the application, has
worked with AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile to install its software on more than
140 million phones without the users' knowledge. It's still unclear exactly
what the carriers are doing with all this data. Despite numerous interviews --
and letters from Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Ed Markey -- the shell-shocked company
is finding it hard to provide
answers
and the carriers are mostly mum.

To
make matters worse, a journalist who filed a Freedom of Information Act request
discovered that the FBI is
likely grabbing data
from Carrier IQ or the carriers, but it won't
say what kind of data or why. In any event, cellphone users have a right to
know what data is being collected, and how Carrier IQ, the carriers and the
government are working together to spy on our phones.

3.
Verizon Blocks Tethering App, Breaks Law

In
July, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon-- with Google's help -- were caught restricting
a wireless tethering app from Google's Android Market.

All
of these carriers harmed innovation by blocking this app, which turns
smartphones into Wi-Fi hotspots. But in Verizon's case, its actions were
actually illegal
. That's because it's the only carrier bound by
meaningful openness conditions that are part of its particular spectrum
licenses.

Asking
Google to remove wireless tethering apps from the Android Market stops them
from being used on all of Verizon's networks, including 4G. This is a direct
violation of the open access rules on Verizon's spectrum license. In other
words, it was illegal.

Free
Press urged the FCC to investigate
Verizon's actions
. It didn't. And a few months later Verizon was at
it again.

2.
Verizon Blocks Google Wallet

Just
months after it got busted blocking applications
in the Android Market
, Verizon Wireless confirmed it is restricting
consumers' ability to download and use Google Wallet -- the search giant's new
mobile payment app -- on the new flagship Galaxy Nexus phone.

By
so casually abusing its gatekeeper position to block applications that compete
with its own offerings, Verizon's move sent a message to all entrepreneurs and
developers: If you come up with an interesting, disruptive new application,
Verizon just may block it and promote its own version instead.

1.
AT&T's Failed Merger with T-Mobile

The
biggest mobile news of the year was arguably AT&T's doomed quest to merge
with T-Mobile. The moment the giant carrier announced its intentions, the
public erupted. These deals usually go very badly for everyone except the heads
of the merging companies and result in higher prices, less competition and less
choice.

The
merger immediately raised antitrust concerns. It would have merged the second-
and fourth-largest U.S. carriers, and it would have created a duopoly, giving
AT&T and Verizon control over nearly 80 percent of the wireless market. Last
summer the Justice Department cited those antitrust concerns when it announced
its suit to stop the deal. Meanwhile, the FCC ultimately decided the merger wasn't
in the public interest, and AT&T pulled its application for approval from
the agency.

The Justice
Department has agreed to put its case on hold until mid-January, giving
AT&T time to formally end its charade and move on from this dead deal.

I've just
outlined 10 nefarious, ugly things the carriers did to us in the last 12
months.

But just this
week, we saw two important wins: A bill that would have allowed marketers to
robocall our cellphones died
on the vine
, thanks in part to thousands of activists who mobilized against
it, and two executives from Carrier IQ were called
to Washington
to explain themselves to the FCC and FTC.

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