Over at the Facebook blog, a post details a new mobile Facebook access portal called Zero, which Facebook says “includes all of the key features of Facebook but is optimized for speed. It initially is available through more than 50 mobile operators in 45 countries and territories with zero data charges.”

Sounds great right? That last point, the one about zero data charges, is actually a huge problem for those of us who care about the open web.

Facebook says they worked out deals with mobile carriers so that accessing their site using the 0.facebook.com url doesn’t count against your data cap and doesn’t incur per kilobyte or megabyte transfer charges.

So while users are paying their carrier to access other sites, or more accurately, for the ability to transfer data to and from those other sites, because of this special deal they can access Facebook without additional charges.

They aren’t actually denying you the ability to access other sites because of the deal, nor is Facebook denying you the ability to access their site unless you use their carrier partners to do it, but you don’t get access to those other sites without incurring data transfer charges because those other sites don’t have deals with the carrier.

There are caveats in this specific case with Facebook, photos still count against your data cap, and the rest is text and unlikely to be very bandwidth intensive. But what if it was something that usually eats a lot of data transfer?

What is being done here sets a terrible precedent for the web, the open and innovative platform for free expression, commerce and competition we all use and love. This is especially significant for the mobile web, where data transfer caps are so low. Preferential deals like this can substantially influence user behavior, and can substantially influence the success or failure of other web sites and services, including mobile carriers.

The whole thing stinks.

I should be clear, i don’t know if money has changed hands here, but it would not be surprising as carriers don’t often do things like this for free without some kind of benefit for themselves.

Imagine if carriers start using this as a selling point:

“Sign up for Mobile carrier X and get access to Facebook for free!”

Again, sounds great, right? The inverse of that situation is that everything else is not free, and users must pay dearly to access those other things. In some cases, users risk exceeding their monthly data cap and being hit with substantial overage charges, charges that will not be a problem if you use Facebook instead of something else, and your ISP gets to decide which of those things you will prefer to use by tweaking their pricing structure and doing backroom deals with other services. The more this sort of thing happens, the more the web starts to look like cable tv instead of the open web.

What happens if this sort of thing expands? As an unlikely but blatant hypothetical example, what if Google wanted to pay carriers so that Youtube specifically doesn’t incur data charges? What if carriers PICK Youtube as the chosen video service that doesn’t count against your data cap:

“Pick mobile carrier X and get unlimited Youtube viewing for free!”

Also sounds great, until again you realize that everything else is not free, if you want to watch something else on another site, you pay data charges and your ISP decides which of those sites apply to your data cap.

Telecoms, opponents of network neutrality and others have been asking repeatedly to “show us the abuse” that would necessitate regulatory action, well, here you go.

This is abuse.