On Zero-Rating and Development

Big Bang Data Exhibition, London (c) Cathleen Berger

Dear International Decision-Makers and Development Practitioners,
This is how you protect human rights while dealing with the alluring ideas of Zero-Rating.

Video - Netzneutralität: Unterwandert Zero-Rating die Demokratie? [German]

On September, 4 2015, Lea Gimpel and I presented the results of a one-year research project at the netzpolitik conference (#11np) in Berlin. Under the aegis of stiftung neue verantwortung (snv) we collaborated with a range of people from different sectors to develop recommendations for decision-makers and practitioners on how to tackle human rights challenges in the digital age from a development perspective. In that vain, our group looked into topics such as infrastructure, freedom of expression, privacy, data ethics and net neutrality.

Lea Gimpel and Cathleen Berger at #11np.

Looking at how much traction the discussion on zero-rating and its implications for net neutrality and human rights has gained over the Free Basics in India controversy, we felt this was a good moment in time to reiterate the ideas and principles that should guide development projects which intend to credibly provide internet access.

Because, let’s face it:

“The zero-rating argument is ultimately circular. It is like saying: since people have a human right to water, we should give them water; whether it is potable or not — well, that is a different question entirely.”

To our minds, Nanjira Sambuli, head of research at *iHub_Research Nairobi, Kenya, nails it. The lead question for development aid must not be if a little Internet is better than nothing but rather how we can achieve an open, free and equal Internet access for everyone worldwide.

Why? Because free, unrestricted access to knowledge, information and other online resources are the key to:

  • safeguard the potential for cultural and economic innovation;
  • access diverse, locally enriched educational offers;
  • support local content and culture;
  • exchange ideas across borders and thereby mutually inform social, cultural, political, and economic developments;
  • establish a free and high-capacity digital economy as well as further the digitisation of industrial and economic processes;
  • and, most significantly, to enable users to have a choice. Only people who can choose are free and freedom is the premise for enjoying human rights.

Last but not least, the economic development of a country, notably with regard to the sustainability and growth of local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), depends on the availability of sufficient, affordable and free Internet. Put differently, access monopolies not only hinder local development, they are also an obstacle to foreign investors that try to enter new markets.

The snv project group at work.

So what do you do?
In order to live up to the responsibility to provide Internet access it is necessary:

  • To guarantee sustainable infrastructure: If private sector companies such as Google or Facebook establish themselves as both, Internet service and infrastructure providers by launching large-scale infrastructure initiatives like Google Loon or Facebook drones, states become susceptible to blackmail. Sustainable infrastructure needs to be independent of private gains and economic interests; it should either be under public authority or subject to clear regulations that limit the possibility to vertically integrate infrastructure owners and operators with content, application and service providers.
  • To smartly regulate the sector: for instance, net neutrality must be safeguarded to allow for innovation, growth, market competition, cultural diversity and non-discrimination.
  • To ensure respect for human rights: If private companies can set the terms and conditions for other services or discriminate against other content, they are put in a position where they not only become economic gatekeepers, they also infringe on the right to freedom of expression, to name just one, for the simple fact that their users are locked in and thus unable to enjoy their freedoms by accessing “the Internet”.

To achieve these goals and adequately protect human rights in the digital age, we suggest the following short-, mid-, and long-term measures:

  • Inspire political will, i.e. engage political leadership,
  • Build public-sector infrastructures, for instance, taxes paid on using telecommunication services could be (re-)invested into infrastructure projects; at the same time luxury taxes on (mobile) devices should be decreased to lower the threshold of acquiring the tools and means to access the Internet,
  • Support capacity building and infrastructure development on a municipal level to increase local ownership,
  • Support initiatives by local governments to provide free Wi-Fi hotspots and ensure that registration is in line with strong data protection rules,
  • Exchange knowledge and regulatory practices and advocate for adequate political frameworks on a bilateral level (e.g. during regular governmental consultations or other negotiations),
  • Support governments which are receptive to the idea of digital rights, e.g. by exchanging staff or offering budgetary support,
  • Strengthen civil societies who work on digital issues, e.g. by educating Digital Development Workers,
  • Promote sensitivity for Internet access as a human right as well as overall digital literacy by supporting educational initiatives, such as expanding Internet access in schools, developing e-learning tools, integrating ICTs into standard curricula, or promoting research exchanges,
  • Prohibit that any zero-rated product is allowed to be called “the Internet”,
  • Offer incentives to strengthen competition and pluralistic market forces,
  • Offer alternatives to zero-rated products such as a free data package for everyone or, if public interest zero-rated products are recognised to serve a particular, crucially relevant service (e.g. educational measures, social or legal information) — and are closely monitored in this regard, ensure that they are combined with such free packages,
  • Pay attention to economically weaker users and advocate for reduced services that do not automatically video-stream or run advertisements with high data rates,
  • Support regional and international alliances and initiatives such as the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the Web Foundation or the Global Forum on Cyber Expertise to increase visibility, connect and collaborate as well as to avoid unnecessary duplication.

A longer analysis of the issue is available here: http://www.stiftung-nv.de/publikation/zero-rating-digital-rights-challenges-developing-world