A newly published patent from AT&T would allow the company to bill customers not just based on how much they use the Web, but also what they use the Web for.
Patent US 20140010082 A1, which is still in the application stage, describes a setup in which AT&T would be able, for example, to charge more to Netflix patrons and other high-bandwidth customers than to subscribers who mostly go online to check their email (h/t TorrentFreak).
The patent would also allow the company to sell its customers certain kinds of service plans, then monitor their Web activity and punish users who appear to be in violation:
When a user communicates over a channel, the type of communication is checked to determine if it is of a type that will use an excessive amount of bandwidth. For example, a subscriber using more bandwidth than allowed by the subscription service plan, or a user not subscribing to the appropriate service plan, would be considered excessive use of the bandwidth. If it is determined that the type is a non-permissible type (e.g., use excessive bandwidth), the user's access to the channel is restricted.
Such a system would fly in the face of net neutrality principles, which call upon Internet service providers to treat all types of websites the same -- whether they're big or small, complex or simple, corporate or independent.
AT&T's patent has surfaced at a heated moment in the debate over how and by whom Internet use should be regulated. Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the Federal Communications Commission could no longer enforce net neutrality, a set of principles that, among other things, prevents Internet service providers from blocking or discriminating against whatever websites they want. With net neutrality dead, ISPs are in theory free to block even law-abiding websites like Netflix -- which they might have incentive to do, since many ISPs are also cable TV providers.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is thrilled with the appeals court's decision. Just last week, activists dropped off more than 1 million signed petitions to the FCC demanding the return of net neutrality. The protesters also delivered a letter signed on behalf of 86 nonprofits demanding net neutrality's resurrection.
When FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler saw the petitions, he reportedly responded, "That's boffo."
Anshel Sag at the tech blog Bright Side of News points out that while AT&T's patent was only published in January, it was first filed way back in 2006, and two earlier versions of the patent have already been approved. Sag writes that the patent dates from the era when AT&T was looking to sell "unlimited" data plans for cellphones, and that these plans would have excluded bandwidth-gulping user actions like file-sharing and streaming movies.
But in 2010, AT&T stopped selling unlimited data plans for mobile phones, and the issue became moot. The fight over net neutrality, though, may end up giving the patent new life.
What's in store for the Web if net neutrality doesn't come back? To many commentators and activists, the future looks grim. Already, concerns have been raised that ISPs may begin blocking or restricting subscriber access to bandwidth-intensive services like Netflix. AT&T's patent, if implemented, would be one way to make such feared restrictions a reality.
AT&T did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Clarification: Language has been added to reflect that, of AT&T's three patents for the technology, one is still in the application stage.