Internet access alternatives to Internet.Org for the Digitally-excluded. Don’t let access providers become kingmakers.

Neutral Web
May 6, 2015 · 7 min read

In the interest of wider internet access for the digitally-excluded, suggesting Net Neutral alternatives to Zero Rating platforms like Internet.org and Airtel-0.

Before you call me an elitist and anti-poor,

I’d like to suggest some methods which according to me would promote internet access and adoption for the digitally-excluded while adhering to the principles of Net Neutrality. We should not forget that Net Neutrality is also about NOT allowing the internet to get monopolised at the Network level, i.e. at the Telco/ISP level. Monopolies have rarely proven to be in consumer interest and are bad especially for those who are economically disadvantaged. In the past, regulatory authorities have handled antitrust issues at the application level such as in operating systems, app stores, marketing platforms, search engines etc. In the absence of laws pertaining Net Neutrality in India, violations got ignored until now. The basic principles of Net Neutrality are the following:

  1. To offer end-users access to ALL services on the internet without anybody playing big brother for them. User choice rules supreme.
  2. Telco/ISP should not differentiate internet data based on its content or originating site/app. (Obviously, non-discriminatory network management principles still apply)
  3. To be Telco/ISP agnostic so that access-providers who have licensed public resources don’t get to play kingmakers on the internet and avoid any situations which might entail a conflict of interest by unduly favouring one service over another.

Please see this post where I have provided evidence as to why Internet.Org (now called Free Basics) and Airtel-Zero in their current forms are against consumer interest, against Net-Neutrality and detrimental to the growth of internet.

Addressing the Financial aspect of internet access

  1. Apps/Sites can decide to show more than enough online advertisements so that the money they make from ads pays for the internet data usage of the user. The concerned apps/sites then transfer that monetary amount as internet data subsidy directly to the end-user.
  2. If a company, such as in e-commerce, wants to subsidise internet data access for their particular product then they can monitor the user’s data usage on their app/site and credit the money as discount for usage later. Companies are encouraged to use capital to gain competitive advantage.
  3. In a special scenario, ONLY government can pay Telcos/ISPs to 0-rate government operated internet services. It’ll be good if the tax-payers money gets used for this positive initiative.
  4. Apps/Sites which want to subsidize internet access, irrespective of their own service being used, can donate money towards this internet access initiative for the poor. Companies can make this a part of their CSR activities. The donated money can be distributed as per guidelines decided by the government.
  5. When financially well-off people recharge their internet accounts, they can be prompted to donate small amounts of money (Rs. 1–10) towards this internet access initiative for the poor. The donated money can be distributed as per guidelines decided by the government.
  6. Mozilla suggests Net neutral, advertising-driven alternatives which provide access to the ENTIRE internet free-of-data-cost. Mozilla’s Chairman Mitchell Baker also addressed this on her blog.

Baker is rooting for a new system what she calls “equal rating” or “zero-rating for all”. One version of this system advocates some amount of data necessary for modern life is offered at discounted/ no charges while companies paying for it get a “brought to you by’ attribution. Mozilla has partnered with Orange in African and Middle Eastern countries where users purchasing a $40 (USD) Klif phone (which runs on the Firefox operating system) receive unlimited talk, text, and 500 MB a month for 6 months.

A second version of equal-rating Baker moots for is where people watch ads in order to access other websites. Baker said that the foundation has been working with Grameenphone (a Telenor-owned company) in Bangladesh where users can receive 20MB of unrestricted data per day after watching a short ad in the phone’s marketplace.

7. CEO of Jana.com explains How To Make The Internet Free In Developing Countries WITHOUT zero-rating. You can read more about Jana mobile’s mCent here. An Indian company named Gigato also has the same approach as Jana. See more about them here.

The company (Jana) reimburses app users for downloading and using an app, but the reimbursed data can then be used anywhere on the Internet, unrestricted.

Additionally, users get additional free data on top of what it cost them to download or try an app within mCent. This free data can also be used however they choose; users can surf the web, download a new app, or watch a video. Instead of making Wikipedia or Facebook free for all, Jana wants to make the entire Internet more affordable to everyone and at the same time, make it less costly for people to explore fun and useful new apps.

The above listed methods seek to minimize the scenarios wherein a Telco/ISP differentiates between internet data based on content and origin of app/site. Only government operated services would be eligible to get special treatment.

How does the subsidy reach the INTENDED end-user who is actually digitally excluded?

  1. Apps/Site can transfer money for use towards internet data using mobile wallets and online banking services. Also Govt. of India is promoting a new plan of Payment Banks for greater financial inclusion which can play a role here.
  2. The government and expert agencies should decide upon a non-discriminatory mechanism to distribute the internet data subsidy, as mentioned in points (3, 4, 5) above, to the poor people who actually need this subsidy.
  3. A wide marketing initiative should be undertaken by the government and interested parties to promote such plans in economically disadvantaged areas. Here also the humble tax-payer shall be eager to help.

Addressing the Technological aspect of internet access

  1. The government and expert agencies shall have to identify zones, mobile devices and financially disadvantaged people who will be eligible for such plans. (Sorry, rich folks from this internet.org ad who just want to gorge on free of cost internet)
  2. Telcos/ISPs should have a minimum bandwidth plan (NOT app-specific data plans) which a financially disadvantaged user pays for and not the apps/sites. Unless it’s a government operated service, Telco/ISP shouldn’t care from where the user gets the money for internet data subsidy.
  3. To minimize internet data usage on the end-user device, the user should use a data efficient web browser. For preliminary access, strip off photos/videos from all websites.
  4. For displaying information, we can develop text-only versions of web-browsers/apps modeled in the image of Search engines and RSS feed readers (such as Feedly.com) which are extremely light on data and one can choose to not display photos/videos. Apps modeled similar to Search Engines and RSS feed readers can open up user choice to the entire internet.
  5. Apps/Sites can be specially designed to minimize data packet size. Interested parties may choose to collaborate on an open technical specification for the same.
  6. There is no need for a single, special internet proxy to route the data since the internet data subsidy is provided irrespective of app/site accessed.

I’d really appreciate your views on the above suggestions.

Thoughts about Internet.Org

Only yesterday (5th May, 2015 IST) and after much backlash has Internet-Org decided to slightly open it’s walled garden. It is definitely a step in the right direction. Internet-org doesn’t have an open technical specification yet, as Zuck said in this video that they’ll release the spec soon. The existing partners would definitely be using some technical specification, why can’t that be opened up right now? The selection criteria was a closely guarded secret till yesterday. Until yesterday, if the criteria was only making a data efficient website/app, do you think developers (or lets say Google) can’t make efficient apps? I know for certain that there are millions of developers who’re extremely capable and philanthropic enough to spend their time on making efficient websites/apps and later release them free of cost. I wish to know, as per internet-org participation guidelines, why does a telecom operator have the following right: (Last line of Review process)

Operators may decline services that cause undue strain to networks

Such vaguely defined rules make me concerned about the Telcos violating Net Neutrality for the wrong reasons. Also it is a flaw which comes from the fact that there is a single proxy for routing the data based on which Telco decides to 0-rate data.

Thoughts about Airtel-0

Airtel has their own offering (airtel-0). How soon will we have internet-org on airtel in India? I don’t think airtel will easily and selflessly give away a platform where they get paid by companies and choose a platform where they don’t get paid. You’ll say I can switch operators. But what if I don’t have a choice or the other option has very bad QoS?

If you’d like, read this blog post. You may find it biased against 0-rating but there’s one thing I’d like to point out which Josh Levy, the advocacy director of Access, said:

When the first billion people came online, and got access to the Internet, it wasn’t through zero-rated services. They got access to the full Internet. So I don’t see why we can’t continue to strategize about ways to get the second billion people online to using the full Internet.

I know people naturally gravitate towards products which are light on the wallet (I’m myself very frugal). But let the product including it’s associated internet data costs define success in eyes of a consumer. Why allow the Telco/ISP to become a kingmaker?

Links to articles which dispel some wrong and misleading analogies doing rounds online (such as wrongly comparing marketing platforms/toll-free to 0-rating) and they also explain why 0-rating is bad for consumer interest:

  1. A Response to #airtelpledge
  2. Why does #SaveTheInternet hate free?