Zero Rating and the Open Internet

May 6th, 2015

One of the challenges of our time is how to make Internet access and use a realistic possibility for the billions of people who cannot afford the data charges.  An attitude of “just wait, eventually this will work out” is not acceptable.  Such an approach would reinforce the global digital divide; it would keep a large fraction of humanity from benefiting from the possibilities of the Open Internet.

An early response to address this problem has been various programs known under the name “zero-rating.”  “Zero-rating” as practiced today means two things:  First, someone other than the ultimate consumer covers the cost of their data charges. Secondly, the parts of the Internet that are available for citizens to choose from is limited, and predetermined by those entities with financial power.

The first part of “zero-rating” is clearly part of the long-term answer, and Mozilla applauds the work being done here.  The second part of zero-rating as practiced today — the predetermined, limited access — is disastrous.

Selective zero-rating is unquestionably bad for the long term opportunities and inclusion for the people it is designed to serve.  It pre-selects what’s available, directing people to where others want them to go.  It is bad for economic inclusion. It is bad for the ability of new entrepreneurs to grow onto the global scale.  It is bad for the long term health of the Internet.  Zero-rating as practiced today is “selective zero-rating for a few apps and websites; exclusion for the rest of the Internet.”

The correct answer is that all data is transmitted at the same price, whether that price is “zero” or anything else.  This way, consumers pick the content they choose to access based on the quality of that content, not the financial power and business partnerships of the provider. This way, new entrepreneurs can still reach any and all users on the Internet, even if they are a few  people working in a co-working space with no ability to subsidize data charges.  I’ll call this system “equal-rating for all” or “equal-rating” for short. (One could call it “zero-rating for all” as well.  I haven’t done so to limit the chances of confusion.)  There’s no question that this is a better answer.

The question is, how do we get there?  Today “zero-rating” comes in a few flavors:

1) Network providers cover the costs to users of accessing certain hand-picked sites and apps;

2) A company pays to provide access to a suite of different services; or

3) a company pays to subsidize access to only their services.

In any of these cases there is a direct connection between a particular site and a cost. This is a well known model for the private sector, and it’s no surprise this is the first model to be explored. As recent protests in India and elsewhere are showing, however, selective zero-rating has massive unwelcome properties which threaten to make this model unacceptable.  In an optimistic vein, we can see this as the dialog between the initial proposals from private industry being adjusted and improved by citizen engagement in the future of the Open Internet.

There are many cases where industry leaders gather together to resolve a problem shared across an entire industry. Could the private sector organize itself to provide a baseline “equal rating” for some amount of data necessary for modern life at discounted or no charge?  Such a program would integrate the “version 1” private solution of limited access with the citizen demands for the opportunity and full inclusion of the full Open Internet.   Perhaps those companies paying for the equal rating might get a “brought to you by” attribution that could bring brand value and network effects.  Orange and Mozilla are experimenting with this sort of model in multiple African African and Middle Eastern markets, where users purchasing a $40 (USD) Klif phone receive unlimited talk, text, and 500 MB a month for 6 months.

Another possible way of “equal-rating” content so it is free-of-charge to the user is a model where people watch ads in order to access other sites. Mozilla has been exploring this model in a partnership with Grameenphone (owned by Telenor) in Bangladesh, where users can receive 20MB of unrestricted data per day after watching a short ad in the phone’s marketplace.  One question is whether the model makes sense economically when the audience has little disposable income, so testing and exploration here is important. This model may seem odd to Open Internet activists in markets where most can pay for data charges.  However, this group isn’t the target market.

In a related vein, an increasing number of companies, foundations and non-profit organizations around the world are interested in how we promote social benefit via the Internet.  These organizations could join together to come up with creative approaches to make sure everyone has access to a certain amount of data that lets them participate in online activities.  Could these organizations join together to organize and implement an “equal-rating” plan?  What would that look like?

Immediate exploration into how to implement these “version two (“v2”) solutions is important for two reasons.  First, they are better for the people being served, economic inclusion and the health of the Open Internet as the platform for global inclusion and development.

Second, a growing number of people are advocating that their governments ban zero-rating. Such action would, of course, force the private sector to find some different solution.  We agree that different market solutions must be found.  If the private sector can react quickly and effectively, achieving these solutions without regulatory bans has two significant benefits.  First, it would avoid any unintended consequences from the specific text of legislation.  And second, once a government has the authority to ban zero-rating in general, it might decide to issue exceptions. We’ve seen this happen in Chile, for example, with Wikipedia Zero being granted an exception. We love Wikipedia and believe if there is going to be any exception at all, Wikipedia is a good one. However, this government ability to control content that is actually available so easily has some profound implications for free expression and censorship that have yet to be explored.

The correct answer for full opportunity of people coming online is to provide is “equal-rating” for all data. How we get there and how fast we can get there is a critical question. The opportunity level for billions of people depend on it.  Mozilla will actively engage in this process.  Our first formal action was to deliver a letter dated May 5 to Prime Minister Modi of India in support of the Open Internet, and stating that  “Zero rating is not the right solution  … we do recognize the need for new and alternative market solutions ….we are committed to doing our part alongside the other actors in the Internet community to address these challenges.”

You can follow the ongoing work at the Mozilla Policy Blog, which today has a companion piece to this post, authored by our Policy team. And please jump in, either with Mozilla or elsewhere, to build effective, healthy solutions to Internet access for all.


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