The mobile-based video game Pokemon Go was released in the United States on July 6, 2016. It quickly captured the attention of gamers, and non-gamers, to an extent unseen since Angry Birds stormed the country. If you haven't played Pokemon Go, and I admit I have not, the basic goal is to "capture" digital Pokemon that now populate the digital world using cell phones that vibrate when you get near one.
While there have been concerns about Pokemon characters being located in inappropriate places like the National Holocaust Museum and the Vietnam War Memorial, as well as numerous injuries to players who lost track of their surroundings, the reaction from some members of Congress and so-called public interest groups exposes a regulatory zeal that should be troubling to consumers and innovators.
Because Pokemon Go is played on wireless devices, it requires the use of wireless data. And since many wireless plans limit the amount of data that can be consumed each month, Pokemon Go subtracts from those caps when it is being played. One might believe informed consumers should be allowed to make their own choices about how they utilize data, but then again, one wouldn't be a member of Congress.
On July 20, 2016, three members of Congress, including the ranking Member on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, sent a letter to the company that created Pokemon Go asking a series of questions implying that the company has legal obligations to proactively ensure that players don't go over their data limits. They even went as far as to ask "Does Niantic have any mechanisms in place to make sure consumers are made whole in the event they are hit with an unexpected overage charge resulting from the use of your app?" Earth to Congress: since when do video game creators have any legal obligations to police consumer data usage?
Okay, if it's bad to subject consumers to games that might eat up their data, it must be good for wireless providers to lift data caps to save consumers from themselves. Wrong again. T-Mobile, seeing an opportunity to treat its customers well and maybe even attract new ones, announced it was exempting data associated with Pokemon Go from customer caps. While clearly good news for T-Mobile's customers, this offended the sensibilities of Public Knowledge, a group that consistently advocates for the total regulation of the Internet. Public Knowledge, arguing that T-Mobile's actions threaten the very "openess" of the Internt, issued its own list of questions. My favorite is "Is this promotion causing a lot more T-Mobile customers to play Pokemon Go?" That's a bad thing?
Ironically, like Niantic and T-Mobile, the Congressional letter writers and Public Knowledge are engaged in their own Pokemon Go self-promotion. Members of Congress love media attention and you can bet Public Knowledge will fund raise off of its anti-consumer stance wrapped in "Open Internet" rhetoric. It is this kind of micromanagement-by-Congressional-meddling and special interest group objection to companies offering services that some consumers might like more than others that threaten innovation and investments in new technologies. Consumers know how wireless devices work and don't need D.C. elites limiting their choices in the name of digital equality.