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AT&T Under Fire From Senate Democrats Over ‘Zero Rating’ Policy for HBO Max

Stephanie Sengwe

It seems AT&T’s business dealings aren’t sitting well with Senate Democrats as the company is under fire for their zero rating policy for HBO Max. Earlier this week, a conversation with the head of HBO Max on The Verge’s Vergecast revealed that the telecom company was excluding HBO Max (AT&T is the parent company of WarnerMedia, which runs HBO Max) from hitting data caps, while other streamers such as Netflix and Disney+ continue use up data.

Streaming Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video or any other content from any streamer typically eats up data for AT&T customers. If these companies want to avoid reaching data caps, they can “sponsor” data by paying a fee through AT&T’s Sponsored Data program. The issue at hand is that in listing HBO Max as one of the services under the program, AT&T is actually just paying itself.

“The data fee shows up on the HBO Max books as an expense and on the AT&T Mobility books as revenue. For AT&T as a whole, it zeroes out,” reported The Verge. “Compare that to a competitor like Netflix, which could theoretically pay AT&T for sponsored data, but it would be a pure cost.”

Now Senate Democrats are pushing back at the company, citing “potential competition and consumer concerns regarding special treatment for HBO Max,” according to Fierce Video. In a letter addressed to CEO Randall Stephenson, Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote, “According to recent reporting and comments from AT&T executives, your company has a policy of favoring a specific streaming service in a manner that appears to run contrary to your stated support for a free and open internet.”

“The Trump FCC may have gutted critical net neutrality protections, but AT&T nonetheless has a responsibility to avoid any policies or practices that harm consumers and stifle competition. This practice of allowing one arm of your company to ‘pay’ another arm of your company for preferential treatment attempts to mask its true impact,” they concluded.

In response, an AT&T spokesperson told Fierce Video, “This is based on a Sponsored Data arrangement and is a program we offer on the same terms to any entities who wish to sponsor data for their customers. This is similar to arrangements many of our competitors have, we continue to support an open internet and have done so for more than a decade.”