AT&T refutes the idea that Sponsored Data violates Net Neutrality
AT&T has a history of being called out on Net Neutrality allegations, most notably due to its blocking of FaceTime calls over mobile data. The most recent outcry has come from AT&T's Sponsored Data program, which AT&T is marketing as a way to ease consumer data bills, but is obviously a way for AT&T to bring in more revenue by giving the data bill to content providers.
The concern arises because digital rights and consumer advocates believe that the cost of the move will eventually fall back on consumers and be anticompetitive. For example, if Apple, Google, or Amazon were to jump on this deal and pay to have movie rentals not count against user data bills, they could then up the price of the movie rental and claim that it is a "premium" rental that doesn't affect your data cap. In this scenario, the user is not only charged more for the content, but is still paying the same amount for data, even if the usage is lowered. Advocates have also said that this move proves that there is no good reason for wireless carriers like AT&T to be imposing data caps in the first place.
Yesterday, AT&T Jim Cicconi, AT&T senior executive vice president of External and Legislative Affairs, issued a statement asserting that AT&T is not violating Net Neutrality regulations, saying:
We are completely confident this offering complies with the FCC's Net neutrality rules, which our company supports... AT&T's sponsored data service is aimed solely at benefiting our customers. It allows any company who wishes to pay our customers' costs for accessing that company's content to do so. This is purely voluntary and non-exclusive. It is an offering by that company, not by AT&T.
AT&T has certainly found something of a grey area in Net Neutrality by making the potential violation a step away from its actions. This makes it harder to claim that AT&T's actions violate regulations, and would instead lead to a wider range of smaller claims if other companies begin to abuse AT&T's program. But, the Sponsored Data program has already caught the attention of the FCC, so AT&T would still likely catch the brunt of it if the deals get shady.