THE BLOG
01/20/2015 12:14 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

What's About to Break the Internet? Free Stuff, Apparently.

What's about to break the Internet?

Free stuff, apparently.

That place where you can read newspapers and watch cat videos at no cost faces a certain and perilous end when Facebook, Twitter, or Wikipedia are free.

So says Harvard law professor and former Obama administration technologist Susan Crawford. 

Crawford is campaigning against phone companies that provide customers access to these services at no cost. In a recent blog post she calls it, "pernicious; it's dangerous; it's malignant... it's a human rights issue."

Just to be clear, this "human rights issue" she's referring to occurs when phone companies don't charge their customers for using popular apps. Many mobile carriers allow unlimited data use for apps consumers like most so they won't be charged for using them.

If it strikes you as loopy to equate consumer discounts with human rights violations like torture or human trafficking, you're not alone. Crawford's comments were met with dismay by many.

Yet, she insists that this is central to net neutrality and, amazingly, some people are buying it. She has the ear of the president, and activists have taken to promoting this "cause" with a hailstorm of social media. 

But, does this do more to hurt net neutrality than help it?

The heart of Crawford's complaint is that giving away free services forces users into something that isn't "the real internet." In the piece, she argues that charging consumers different rates for download speeds is fine, but not charging them at all for some services, referred to as zero-rating, should not be allowed:

Zero-rating, by contrast, is absolutely inappropriate. It makes certain kinds of traffic exempt from any data cap at all, or creates a synthetic "online" experience for users that isn't the Internet.

Most Americans use smartphones to connect with friends and find information. And when a carrier doesn't charge for apps such as Facebook and Wikipedia, consumers have more data to access other ones. It saves them money. On a tight budget, those cost savings can make a real difference. Crawford, however, dismisses this in her argument:

But the cost of such services is the future of the Internet. Those users may never move to "real" Internet access... That's discrimination on the basis of the nature of the traffic itself, being carried out by the service provider  --  not by the user... Traffic that is "approved" is allowed; other traffic won't flow to users.

Using pretzel logic, one could claim that free access to one service denies access to another. But that defies common sense. Every day, online consumers make choices about what apps and websites they use. It's done with the click of a mouse or the tap of an icon. Wireless customers already have paid for a data plan. If some of their favorite, most-trafficked apps are free, they have more data available to use for others. Where's the problem?

Crawford insists that it's "patronizing" to offer discounts or free products to consumers.

This has to be one of the most tone deaf pot-kettle claims I've ever seen. Crawford's condescending view of Americans is astounding. She insists the government must "outlaw" these free apps or else we won't go to the right places on the internet. Crawford believes Americans can't be trusted to make our own decisions online unless we pay for that privilege.

I have more faith. I think we can find the "real Internet" by ourselves without her guiding hand to protect us from the dangers of saving money. And this notion that consumers shouldn't get anything for free -- because it's inherently "malignant" and not "real" -- is just laughable.

Does Crawford share the same contempt for consumers using an 800 number? Are they not using a "real" phone service because it's a free call? Does that make it dangerous?

How about her students at Harvard? Does she look down her nose at those who needed scholarships to attend? By Crawford's reasoning, they were being manipulated into choosing an education that wasn't "real."

After so many years in federal government and academia, perhaps Crawford should reacquaint herself with the real world. If she ventures out there, she'll find that we're perfectly fine surfing the web on our own. And that we aren't insulted by discounts or savings. They don't make us feel bad about ourselves or deprive us of rational thought. 

Crawford insists "there can be no compromise (on zero-rating). Because then we would be surrendering." I hope saner voices prevail. If we try to take the free out of the internet, consumers are going to have a real problem with net neutrality.

Disclosure: ACT | The App Association represents over 5,000 companies in the app ecosystem and enjoys support from a wide range of internet companies including platforms, carriers, software and e-commerce companies.