Does the App Store violate net neutrality?

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Developers have long questioned the seemingly arbitrary guidelines Apple employs to determine which iPhone applications win App Store approval. But now Apple and exclusive U.S. operator partner AT&T are facing charges that the decision to allow Major League Baseball's At Bat application for iPhone to stream mobile video across AT&T's 3G network after prohibiting 3G support for placeshifting technology developer's Sling Media's SlingPlayer Mobile video app violates the fundamental principles of net neutrality.

In a statement issued Thursday, nonprofit media reform organization Free Press notes that just last month, AT&T contended the SlingPlayer Mobile iPhone app would pose too much of a bandwidth threat to operate over 3G--in order to earn App Store approval for the application, Sling Media was forced to disable 3G streaming capabilities, reportedly at Apple's request, meaning iPhone users can only view video content over WiFi. But last week, MLB.com told The New York Times that its newly-enhanced At Bat app will offer live streaming video coverage of major league games optimized for both WiFi and 3G networks, adding that its servers will detect the strength of the device's connection and adapt the quality of the video accordingly. "That strikes us as odd and potentially nefarious because it really represents a carrier picking and choosing applications for consumers as opposed to letting consumers decide which videos they want to watch," Free Press policy director Ben Scott tells Wired. "It's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect in an Internet experience that's controlled by the carrier."

Earlier this year, Free Press sent a letter to the FCC asking the agency to confirm that mobile operators must adhere to the Internet Policy Statement, which guarantees consumers' right to access any online content and services on any device of their choosing. According to Free Press, AT&T has previously voiced public support for this position, citing a November 2008 Washington Post article quoting AT&T chief lobbyist Jim Cicconi, who said "The same principles should apply across the board. As people migrate to the use of wireless devices to access the Internet, they... certainly expect that we treat these services the same way." Scott's statement contends that AT&T is effectively playing favorites by denying Sling Media the same rights it is now extending to MLB.com: "We are troubled that carriers like AT&T are playing gatekeeper to the next generation of wireless Internet applications. No Internet service provider should be allowed to pick winners and losers online. AT&T has acknowledged that open Internet principles should apply to wireless and that consumers expect unfettered mobile access. So why is AT&T deciding what online video its iPhone customers can watch and what they can't? This is exactly the kind of arbitrary intervention in the open Internet marketplace that consumers should fear in an industry dominated by powerful network owners."

In response to Free Press' allegations, AT&T tells Wired that the difference between the MLB app and the SlingPlayer app is that the former streams video from MLB's website, while the latter streams content from the TV set-top box Slingbox. AT&T argues it is simply seeking to guarantee that its subscribers enjoy the best possible service: "We're certainly not crippling any apps," an AT&T spokesman said. "This is an issue of fairness... While we would like to support all video services across our network, the reality is that wireless networks simply lack the capacity to support customers streaming hours of cable, satellite or IPTV video programming to individual users." Free Press suggests that Apple and AT&T either ban all iPhone video apps that feature live streaming, or approve them all under the condition that developers include code to temporarily disable live streaming capabilities in the event that network capacity isn't up to the task. Here's another idea: Apple needs to make clear once and for all what is and what is not acceptable for an iPhone application to earn its blessing. It's impossible to determine whether or not an app breaks the rules when no one outside of Apple knows what those rules are. -Jason

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