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What is net neutrality and zero-rating offers, and is Three's Go Binge scheme unfair?

Three has just announced its new ‘Go Binge’ deal for new and existing customers, which allows unlimited streaming from a small selection of online services. However, Go Binge has raised questions about a network provider’s role in net neutrality, as well as the legalities of such schemes here in the UK.

So what is net neutrality and the increasingly popular ‘zero-rating’ offers being thrust at UK mobile users? And is Three right to offer such deals?

What is net neutrality?

First off, let’s cover net neutrality. This has become a pretty hot topic in 2017, in most part thanks to the Trump administration.

Net neutrality is a principle that was originally aimed at internet service providers, such as BT and Plusnet. The idea is that these providers should allow fair access to all online websites and services. In other words, they shouldn’t deliberately block or hinder access to any particular content.

This makes perfect sense, to avoid any kind of corruption. After all, it wouldn’t be particularly fair if those providers set up a virtual brick wall when you tried to access their rivals online.

However, while the FCC has helped to uphold net neutrality for years, the new FCC chairman - Ajit Pai - is not so much of a fan. Meanwhile the flames have been further stoked by the likes of Three’s Go Binge offer, which is a prime example of a zero-rating offer - very much a thorn in the side of net neutrality backers.

What is a zero-rating offer?

Zero-rating offers are becoming an increasingly popular way for mobile networks to attract new customers, or encourage existing customers to upgrade their contracts. This kind of offer allows unlimited ‘free’ access to a particular service, using a mobile data connection.

Three’s Go Binge offer is a perfect example of this. Go Binge allows Three customers unlimited access to Netflix, TVPlayer, Deezer and SoundCloud, with no impact on their data usage for the month. That means you can stream movies, shows and music using those apps as much as you like, without ever hitting your limit.

Of course, existing customers need to upgrade to a more expensive contract, with at least 4GB of monthly data included, to take advantage.

Which UK networks have zero-rating offers?

Three isn’t the first UK network to dip its toes in the murky waters of zero-rating deals, of course. For instance, Virgin Mobile did something similar recently, offering unlimited WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger use for customers. You can send photos and even video clips to other users and it won’t count towards your data allowance for the month.

Are zero-rating offers illegal, and do they break net neutrality laws?

Zero-rating offers such as these clearly promote certain online services above others. In the Go Binge case, Three is giving customers a rather enticing incentive to use Netflix over rivals such as Amazon Prime Video, for instance.

Luckily, the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video now offer customers the option to download movies and shows, to watch offline. However, the full online catalogue usually isn’t included in this feature. Which means the ability to stream everything at no data cost is definitely a big deal.

Zero-rating offers are still legal in the UK and Europe, although the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (deep inhale) is clamping down on such practices. For instance, a provider which blocks or slows down access to select services when a data cap is reached, while still allowing full access to another service, would be breaking net neutrality guidelines.

For now, like it or not, UK mobile providers can continue to offer such deals to customers.

Check out our round-ups of the best UK data deals right now:

Best SIM-only 1GB data deals

Best deals with unlimited data

Also, check out our real-time mobile deals page for the best contract offers available right now.

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