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Payment creates a 'Digital Divide', claim activists

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Over in the US the debate over pre-emptive internet regulation, created by academics and interest groups, has now firmly entered the territory of the Frankly Bizarre.

Take the example of the cheap-and-cheerful mobile operator MetroPCS, hugely popular for its unlimited pay-as-you-go voice plans and cheap call rates to Mexico. Often mistakenly described as a MVNO (it isn't), MetroPCS provides welcome competition to the big operators in the few areas in which it operates.

MetroPCS has begun offering a bundle that includes web browsing and YouTube along with unlimited calls for $40 - extras such as video calling, corporate email and a bundle of MP3 downloads cost a bit more; for those, you'll want the $50 or $60 plans. But it's found itself on the receiving end of ferocious criticism.

Activist group FreePress accused MetroPCS of creating a "digital divide". How so? Because it divides the nation into "haves" and "have nots" - er, ... those prepared to spend $40 and those prepared to spend a bit more.

Paying for stuff is evidently a mortal sin. To avoid potentially committing acts of wickedness, then, FreePress insists that people shouldn't be offered the choice. This is as bizarre as anything in American political history, and perhaps explains why Google threw the "neutrality" activists under a bus last year, when it cut a deal with Verizon to get the nutters off their backs.

Nobody has ever been able to agree what "net neutrality" means, let alone what harm has been done by a total absence of technical regulation in the internet's 30-year history. So the FCC's "light touch" regulation is really a series of gestures.

And the panto continues. Yesterday Congress voted to deprive the telco regulator FCC of funds to enforce technical regulation of the internet. An amendment by Greg Walden, chair of the Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, blocked the funding. "Consumers can access anything they want with the click of a mouse thanks to our historical hands-off approach,” said Walden, who mocked Democrat claims that the amendment would "shut down the internet".

Republicans in both houses have also tabled matching "resolutions of disapproval" seeking to reverse the FCC's vague and tepid rules on internet regulation. Like most things on The Hill, this is gesture politics; the Democrats don't have the votes to introduce pre-emptive technical regulation and the Republicans don't have enough to kill it. So it muddles on as an ever-changing set of bureaucratic nods and winks. ®

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