‘Zero-Rating’— the commercial practice whereby an internet service provider (ISP) doesn’t count the use of an app or service against your monthly data cap — has come under renewed scrutiny earlier this month when a study by digital rights organization Epicenter.worksfound that countries that allow its use see average data prices increase over time.
The study, which compared 30 European countries, adds to an ongoing discussion over zero-rating schemes.
The practice is accused of leading to additional costs for the consumer but also of hampering net-neutrality, the principle that ISPs should treat all transmission of data equally.
Evidently, if a service provider offers its customers the possibility of using an app under a zero-rating formula, it’s discriminating other apps. And, obviously, only larger corporations (like Facebook or Netflix) are usually able to sustain zero-rating deals with ISPs.
The debate over zero-rating is crucial in the Western context, as highlighted by Epicenter.works’ research, but it’s even more important in the developing world where the Internet is less accessible and more expensive.
In a country where there’s a low Internet penetration rate, zero-rating practices can become particularly predatory.
Think of what happened when Facebook launched its zero-rating offer in India back in early 2015. Camouflaged as a philanthropic endeavor under the domain ‘Internet.org’, zero-rating Facebook was part of Zuckerberg’s masterplan to get millions of new users online, making them believe that Facebook and the Internet were the same thing.
The pernicious idea was simple: if you can’t pay for Internet access, you’ll rely solely on Facebook’s free services and you’ll end up believing that Facebook is the Internet.
Fortunately, India’s national telecoms regulator banned the practicein 2016 but in many countries similar schemes still thrive.
Zuckerberg always hailed the practice as a charitable mission, promoting it under the lofty tagline “connectivity is a human right”.
Undeniably, such pronouncement has a certain appeal. And even Wikipedia fell for it. Already in 2012, the Wikimedia Foundation launched Wikipedia Zero, a zero-rating program aimed at spreading free knowledge in the developing world.
However, accused of violating net-neutrality rules and dubbed as “digital colonialism”, the Wikimedia Foundation dropped the program in 2018.
The thing is, rather than spreading knowledge, zero-rating offers are often vectors of misinformation.
Look at what happened in Brazil during the political elections last October. As highlighted by professor Luca Belli in an article for The Conversation, most Brazilians have unlimited social media access thanks to zero-rating plans, but very little access to the rest of the Internet because a broadband connection is still very expensive.
The outcome is that, when fake news go viral on social media or messaging services like WhatsApp, most of Brazilians don’t even have the possibility to fact-check them on the Internet.
At first sight, zero-rating offers look like a sweet deal for consumers and a noble effort to connect the world, but beyond appearances, they’re just a nasty business practice that distorts competition and cripples Internet access in the developing world.
The header image is a picture of the literacy app hackathon that took place in Addis Abeba in 2015. Credit: Beyond Access