Skip to main content

Zero-Rating: Not the Best, but the Best of the Worst

November 26, 2019

Nahide Basri is a Cypriot LLB graduate at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and is currently undertaking a Master of Laws specializing in Human Rights Law there. She has received the Morris Finer Prize for the Best performance in Family Law, and the Hunton Andrews Prize for the Best Performance in Information Technology from LSE.

Zero-Rating: Not the Best, but the Best of the Worst

Zero-rating provides mobile users unlimited access to certain internet content without consuming their data. It violates net neutrality by treating data packets differently across the internet (Brake, 2016). Despite this, evaluating specifically from the users’ perspective, this commentary argues that Zero-Rating is in the public interest (ibid).

With its unprecedented potential for freedom of speech, giving everyone both voice and immediate access to wide-ranging information, the internet is greatly endowed with key democratic functions, necessitating its classification as a public good (Murray and Audibert, 2016). This generates a fundamental right to access an open and free internet (Ibid). Arguably however, Zero-Rating may threaten an individual’s right to an open and free internet, since those who are unwilling to risk exceeding their data cap by viewing the non-zero-rated content, may get trapped inside a ‘walled’ garden with limited access to the internet (Brake, 2016).This, however, has limited effect on the openness of the internet in practice, since allowing free access to particular content does not impair the functioning of the non-zero rated content – the availability, quality and the speed of the latter remains the same. Therefore, in essence what zero-rating affects is the users’ willingness, not their ability, to exit the ‘walled garden,’ by increasing the attractiveness of what is inside. Theoretically, the user is always able to venture beyond: for example, as Zuckerberg has stated, half of the internet.org (Facebook’s ZR platform, now Free Basics) users pay for the full internet within a month. (Ibid) Thus, the fear that  zero-rating fundamentally threatens open internet appear much exaggerated.

Notably, zero-rating is particularly valuable in the context of developing countries. It may even be argued that in this context, that the internet’s status as a public good makes the internet a necessity, as but for zero-rating, the low purchasing powers would have deprived the poor from the fundamental right to access the internet. A potential objection to zero-content here that it does not provide anything ‘useful’ to the poor, however this ignores the multi-faceted nature of social media platforms. For example, Facebook played an important role during the parliamentary elections in Myanmar in November 2015 (Galpaya, 2017). Field research conducted in South East Asia also demonstrates how social media platforms, such as Facebook, were used by the hairdressers of the lower socio-economic background to advertise themselves to the local population (ibid). This depicts how internet.org can facilitate a wide range of activities and purposes, from conducting political campaigns to developing local hairdressers’ businesses through wider exposure to celebrity hairstyles (ibid). Furthermore, it is too ‘elitist’ to dismiss the social aspect of zero-rated social media platforms: i.e. where SMS and voice calls are unaffordable for the poor, Messenger provides a primary means of communication (Ibid). Additionally, zero-rating can also expand to another internet content, such as in Wikipedia Zero, which provided Wikipedia for free. Even if internet.org can potentially be disregarded as ‘useless’ and ‘unnecessarily’, the latter clearly exemplifies a more solid way in which zero-rating can facilitate expanding access to information in developing countries for those who would not otherwise afford internet.

Nevertheless, it is also necessary to point out that not all the promises of zero-rating will, and can be realised in practice. For example, the zero-rated content in internet.org was mainly Western-based (eg. BBC News), excluding local websites more relevant and important for the locals in developing nations. Additionally, zero-rating can also be inadequate in responding to the local population’s linguistic needs (Solon, 2017). In Ghana, for example, despite the widespread use of Twi, internet.org is provided only in English. This depicts ‘colonial’ attitudes inherent in Zero-Rating, limiting both its usefulness and reach to the poor (Ibid). As these limit the potential promises that zero-rating would otherwise offer, some changes might be necessary within the zero-rating structure. One desirable change may be altering Zero-Rating’s architecture (Lessig, 2006). For example, one-click-away-zero-rating, allowing the user free access to any first clicked URL, may prevent the alleged trap inside the ‘wall’ and allow locals in developing countries (limited) access to content most important to them (Galpaya, 2016). This may bring Zero-Rating closer to Net Neutrality, reducing the risk of countries like India banning it on the aforementioned grounds.

In the end, responses to zero-Rating vary from the US Federal Communications Commission’s recent approval of Zero-Rating (Finley, 2017) to an outright ban in countries like India. This variety is understandable – the correct measure depends on the particular characteristics of each country. (Galpaya, 2017). Ultimately, responses to zero-rating need to be done on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration the needs of the country.

What is clear, however, is that banning Zero-Rating will not benefit the users, regardless of the country.

Banning Zero-Rating, is a regrettable overreaction which deprives the poor of the fundamental right to internet (Goodman, 2016). A blind insistence on Net Neutrality signifies the victory of an “elitist ‘neutrality’ ideology” over consumer welfare – particularly harmful in the developing world (Brake, 2016). While Zero-Rating cannot itself remedy many of the problems experienced in developing countries, such as low connectivity levels, which limits the local people’s ability to gain internet access,, any short-term benefit Zero-Rating can generate should be welcomed. Surely, some access is better than none (Goodman, 2016). Zero-rating is not the best, but it may be the best of the worst.

End Notes

  1. Brake, D. (2016) Mobile Zero Rating: The Economics and Innovation Behind Free Data, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.
  2. Galpaya, H. (2017) Zero-rating in Emerging Economies,Global Comission on Internet Governance.
  3. Lessig, L. (2006) Code 2.0. New York: Basic Books
  4. Murray, A., and Audibert, L. C. (2016) A Principled Approach To Network Neutrality. SCRIPTed13(2).
  5. Goodman, E. (2016) India’s ban on Facebook’s free service is an overreaction.The Guardian.9thFebruary [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/08/indias-ban-on-facebooks-free-service-is-an-overreaction [Accessed 1 November 2018].
  6. Solon, O. (2017) It’s digital colonialism’: how Facebook’s free internet service has failed its users. The Guardian. 27thJuly [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jul/27/facebook-free-basics-developing-markets [Accessed 1 November 2018].
  7. Finley, K. (2017) The FCC Oks Zero-Rating – But Net Neutrality Pays the Price, WIRED,2ndMarch [online]. Available at: https://www.wired.com/2017/02/fcc-oks-streaming-free-net-neutrality-will-pay/ [Accessed 1 November 2018].