A while back I mentioned the idea that some content sites would offer free shipping for their bits. It would be the inevitable result of metered pricing on the Internet, an idea with which major (wired) carriers are experimenting.

For example, ESPN might make a deal with Comcast to say “any video from ESPN flowing over Comcast’s network will not count against the customer’s bandwidth bill.” Basically, ESPN becomes toll-free for the customer, not unlike an 800 number.

It turns out Facebook is the first to do this, and they are doing it on wireless networks where bandwidth is — ding ding — metered. They made deals with a bunch of wireless carriers. This seems like a win-win-win; Facebook is (presumably) compensating the carriers; Facebook gets to tell their customers that they are free to use, increasing their traffic; and customers save money.

But is this a neutral arrangement, in the sense of net neutrality? Clearly not. Facebook’s bits are being delivered at a different price than other sites. That sort of thing certainly seems to be the fear of net neutrality advocates. What the advocates misunderstand is that non-neutral networks can be better for the consumer, as in the case above.

What’s less likely is that a carrier would charge more for a YouTube; what’s more likely is that YouTube would subsidize the consumer. In other words, by making “upcharges” illegal, net neutrality would also make discounts illegal.

“Neutral” means neither positive nor negative, and it means that differences (and experimentation and variety) are prohibited — even if those differences benefit the consumer.