In an unexpected development, the Wikimedia Foundation announced on Friday that it is discontinuing Wikipedia Zero, a six-year-old program which enabled hundreds of millions of people around the globe to access the world’s largest online encyclopaedia without worry about the cost of mobile data on their phones.
To make Wikipedia Zero possible, the Wikimedia Foundation partnered with 97 mobile operators in 72 countries in the last six years, it said. The not-for-profit foundation, which owns Wikipedia, says it provided more than 800 million people with access to Wikipedia at no data cost (when users in these countries — and on the partnered carrier — visited Wikipedia, the data was not counted against the data caps on their phones). That changes this year, however. The Wikimedia Foundation says it will no longer be roping in new mobile operator partners for the program, and the existing partnerships with operators will expire this year.
The announcement comes as a surprise, considering the Wikimedia Foundation was seemingly ramping up the reach of Wikipedia Zero in the recent years. Just last year, for instance, the foundation partnered with carriers in Iraq and Afghanistan to roll out the mobile data free access to Wikipedia in the countries.
The organisation says the adoption of — and interest in — Wikipedia Zero has waned over the years. Wikipedia Zero was started with the audacious mission to reshape the world where “every single human being on the planet has equal access to the sum of all knowledge.”
Without sharing much details, the Wikimedia Foundation says it is evaluating other ways to help people access Wikipedia. “To create all the world’s knowledge, we need participation from the world. However, we know that there are many barriers to making this vision a reality, data affordability being just one,” it wrote in a blogpost. “We look forward to continuing to explore, evaluate, and measure the impact of our partnership opportunities and more as we build for the future of Wikimedia.”
“Over the coming year, we will explore other ways we can leverage the findings from our research and the Wikipedia Zero program to direct future work with partners in support of our free knowledge mission,” said a spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation in an emailed statement.
One of the barriers that the Wikimedia Foundation may have run into is regulation. Wikipedia Zero worked on the principle of “zero-rating”, a model which sees companies — for profit or otherwise — partner with carriers or/and device manufacturers to offer users access to select websites or services at subsidized cost. While this model may benefit the consumers, regulators have been wary of it.
Amid debates over net neutrality, in late 2014, Wikimedia Foundation said it maintained a “complicated relationship” with net neutrality. While it believed in net neutrality in America, elsewhere it found that it had to pursue other means to increase the reach of Wikipedia Zero. In the recent years, zero-rating has been mired in controversy. In one of the most prominent examples of the tension companies have faced with the regulators, in 2016, India banned Facebook’s Free Basics citing concerns that these programs violated net neutrality. (Chile did something similar in 2014.)
But while these debates continue, there is no denying that millions of people will no longer be able to access Wikipedia without keeping a tab on their ISP’s data counter. For years, its parent foundation has expressed concerns over the lack of awareness Wikipedia has among new online users in developing markets.
In a report two years ago, the Wikimedia Foundation noted that in places like India, Mexico, and Nigeria, only a small portion of the population was aware of Wikipedia brand. A year later, things hadn’t improved much — only about 27 percent of Internet users in Nigeria said they had heard of Wikipedia. The foundation’s community members cited “lack of access to internet to the non-affordability” as some of the reasons for the little awareness of Wikipedia in the country.
At the same time, a few users in other regions were found to be abusing Wikipedia Zero. In 2016, some Angolans were caught hiding links to copyright infringed content on Wikipedia pages, according to Motherboard.
Wikipedia Zero will be missed — for one reason or another.