Sponsored data has the power to make the Internet cheap, small and branded

By James Robinson , written on July 11, 2014

From The News Desk

I've written before about how as mobile surpasses desktop in dominance over the next few years with the app serving as the major entry point, the wide open wild west of the Internet will become a much smaller experience.

In that light, I had been secretly happy earlier this year when AT&T's sponsored data plan didn't get any traction. The idea was that companies could sponsor the data you use while in their apps. We use our smartphones often in moments where we used to be just doing nothing. There's a huge element of distraction to it. If something is there, and free to browse, it's amazing how thoughtless that decision becomes. Sponsored data seemed like a bad companion for the aimlessness of our mobile use.

I spent 15 minutes on eBay on a Delta flight recently just because it was free to browse, a site that I don't think I'd browsed in many years, because it was only an hour long journey, I didn't have a book and didn't want to pay $10 for Internet.

There had been speculation that Amazon would be AT&T's first client. But it never eventuated. However my joy in seeing AT&T struggle ended yesterday, when Seattle's Syntonic Wireless announced a plan for a branded marketplace through the program. When it launches, you will open the app and it will offer you access to a range of sites to browse and a selection of apps to download that won't count against your data cap. A screenshot of the software on Recode showed that access would be opened up to Amazon, Etsy, eBay and Groupon.

There's something hugely unsurprising about sponsored data and completely insidious at the same time. Now that we're paying for music, news and television in ever diminishing numbers, companies will find other ways to make our consumption lucrative by making us sit through sponsored messages. In mobile games, the idea of monetizing users by making them watch an ad between levels has taken hold. Or on a more obvious level, think free Spotify, or YouTube.

But sponsored data is different. If we want to download Spotify and not pay for a premium service, the trade off to us is having to listen to an advert. We sought the service out.

If the sponsored data plan takes off, it corrupts our choices at their root. Writ large, it could result in penny-conscious browsers sticking with companies big enough to underwrite our data to secure our business, favoring for example, Amazon over independent retailers, USA Today over independent media, and so on.

Apps make the world smaller on mobile and sponsored data has the potential to work like a bribe to keep that real estate just that much more cramped again.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]