Zero for Conduct
On the surface, it sounds great for carriers to exempt popular apps from data charges. But it’s anti-competitive, patronizing, and counter-productive.
Compromise is great, but no democratic country should sacrifice the ideal of the global, interoperable Internet — and the speech and innovation it facilitates — in the name of pragmatism. I’m talking about the issue of “zero rating”: the practice being followed by mobile carriers around the world to provide Web access “for free” to their users to certain chosen services. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Wikipedia become “the Internet” for the users of mobile data supported by “zero rating” plans, because accessing these services doesn’t cause users to hit the data caps applied by the carriers, and in many cases the plans don’t require the user to sign up for mobile data at all.
The pragmatists, and the mobile carriers, say that limited access to an online world made up of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Wikipedia is better than no access at all for people on the other side of the digital divide. Indeed, net neutrality activists are painted by the carriers’ lobbyists (and other mouthpieces) as anti-access: if you assume that only limited zero-rated access is possible in a developing country for people who can’t afford even a low-priced data plan, then wouldn’t you want that in preference to no access at all? These same voices claim that users of these limited services are being primed to sign up (eventually) for full Internet access.
Some countries have bravely disagreed. Chile has banned zero rating. Norway, which has had net neutrality guidelines in place since 2009, also bans the practice, saying that users have to have the right to decide what their Internet access is to be used for. Zero-rating also isn’t happening in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, or Japan.
But all other OECD countries have some flavor of zero rating in place. Here in the US, AT&T’s “sponsored data” program is an example of zero-rating sneaking into our nation, as is Sprint’s offer of inexpensive data plans that give access only to Facebook or Twitter.
Here’s the truth: Zero-rating is pernicious; it’s dangerous; it’s malignant. Regulators around the world are watching how the US deals with zero-rating, and we should outlaw it. Immediately. Unless it’s stopped, it’s not going to go away.
The aim of net neutrality is to preserve the Internet as the crucial open sidewalk for communication that it has become. The reason that the Chinese, Russian and Cuban governments fear an open Internet more than anything else is that it allows users to gather and speak to one another. But users of a walled-garden “zero-rated” Internet can’t even click links that go outside the garden. And they certainly won’t be launching their own apps. Linking and building are the fundamental attributes of the Internet — innovation and speech without permission — that must not be compromised away.
I’m not saying that all forms of discrimination by mobile carriers are illegitimate. Users today can buy subscriptions for different download throughput over a unit of time — 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps connections, for example — and the availability of these different products is not, in and of itself, a violation of net neutrality, because all data is being treated alike. Volume limits, or usage-based-billing, present a much harder question. They can clearly be abusive in a marketplace in which users have no or little choice of carriers and there is no relationship between the cost of providing that capacity and the volume limits being imposed.
Zero-rating, by contrast, is absolutely inappropriate. It makes certain kinds of traffic exempt from any data cap at all, or creates a synthetic “online” experience for users that isn’t the Internet. Traffic that is “approved” is allowed; other traffic won’t flow to users. That’s discrimination on the basis of the nature of the traffic itself, being carried out by the service provider — not by the user.
The pragmatists, and the carriers, say that it is worth allowing poorer populations around the world (now barred by the high cost of Internet access) to see part of the Internet. But the cost of such services is the future of the Internet. Those users may never move to “real” Internet access, satisfied with their “free” access to a walled garden of chosen services. And carriers will have no particular incentive to provide them with that open Internet access. Instead, vertical discrimination will become the norm: the Internet as cable TV.
In fact, zero rating certain services are anti-competitive in a way that even cable operators might envy. Can you imagine trying to launch a competitor to Facebook in a country where most of your potential customers will have to pay data charges for your service—while the incumbent Facebook is exempt?
Let’s close the digital divide. That’s possible, everywhere. The better approach for closing it is the adoption of policies that drive towards openness and competition — steps like requiring carriers to offer dark fiber services (unused capacity that retail providers can use to send information) that can be used by competitors as essential infrastructure. Policies requiring the sharing of basic infrastructure, in general, make sense in the world of high-fixed-cost communications lines. (Think basic street grid shared by many forms of transportation.) And digital literacy for non-adopters plus heightened awareness of how the Internet is relevant to their lives are clearly needed as well.
But zero rating is not just a competition issue. It’s also a human rights issue. Saying that walled gardens are “good enough” for poorer people is clearly destructive. As Josh Levy, the advocacy director of Access, puts it, “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.”
All compromise is based on give and take. But when it comes to fundamentals — including the earth-shaking idea of the Internet, which has made possible for the first time an open, global, interoperable platform for communications — there can be no compromise. Because then we would be surrendering, not compromising.