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GoSmart, a prepaid mobile brand operated by T-Mobile, today announced that its customers can access Facebook and its Messenger service without having to pay for the requisite data.

The announcement is simply the latest in a series allowing Facebook users to access the social network for free. Sometimes this is accomplished through tools that allow “dumbphone” owners to access Facebook via text messages, sometimes it’s done through promotions like this one. Facebook is trying to convince new Internet users that it’s the most important aspect of the Web, and allowing them to access it without cost to themselves is the best way to do so.

But it is also a threat to the idea that Internet service providers shouldn’t be allowed to charge (or not charge, in this case) their customers based on the websites they visit.

The service isn’t as nefarious as other threats to this concept, often called “net neutrality.” Many have envisioned a future where Internet service providers charge their customers extra to access popular services like Netflix or YouTube or Facebook. They might slow these services down, allowing them to give their own offerings preferential treatment. Or they might ask some companies to pay an extra fee to make their websites perform better than others.

As Wired described the issue in November:

Net neutrality is a dead man walking. The execution date isn’t set, but it could be days, or months (at best). And since net neutrality is the principle forbidding huge telecommunications companies from treating users, websites, or apps differently — say, by letting some work better than others over their pipes — the dead man walking isn’t some abstract or far-removed principle just for wonks: It affects the internet as we all know it.

It might be easier to understand the concept through an ice cream shop metaphor. Most shops price their wares based on size instead of flavor — a large costs more than a small, but vanilla doesn’t cost more than chocolate. That’s the way most Internet service providers charge their customers, except they’re worried about connection speeds and websites instead of cones and ice cream flavors.

Now imagine that your favorite frozen dessert vendor charged different prices for every flavor of ice cream in his shop. A chocolate cone might cost more than a vanilla one, and Rocky Road could become prohibitively expensive. That’s what might happen if these Internet service providers start charging based on the websites their customers access instead of the speed with which they access them.

Allowing free access to Facebook and its messaging service on a small prepaid network isn’t as large a threat to net neutrality as some of the things large Internet service providers might do. But this doesn’t mean that giving Facebook preferential treatment shouldn’t be frowned upon.

What is the difference between charging consumers extra to access one website and allowing them to access a specific service at no cost? Someone is giving consumers a reason to access one website instead of another either way. Both approaches give preferential treatment to one service over the competition. The underlying principle — that a byte from one website should cost more or less than a byte from another website — is the same.

It would suck if your local ice cream seller started charging more for your favorite flavor. Allowing others to eat a different flavor for free in an effort to get more people into his shop would be just as sleazy, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first. Ice cream is ice cream, the Internet is the Internet, and both should cost the same no matter what flavor you want.

[Image via Ultrafeel.tv]