Digital Life

No Such Thing As Free Internet (Zero-Rating Explained)

Free Lunch of Zero Rating
Created with Creative Commons flickr photos: My Old Phone by Oracio Alvarado, WiFi symbol by Christiaan Colen and Small plate, black satin by Jay Wiese.
Solana Larsen
Written by Solana Larsen

Languages: Portuguese, French, Spanish, Arabic

Web We Want’s newsletter highlights one important topic and tells you what you need to know in 3 minutes or less.

What’s Going On?

There’s no such thing as free Internet. When your mobile operator offers you free data in some configuration, it means that either they or a content provider is footing the bill.

Why would they do this? Because they want to compete for your business, attention or personal info. Altruism can be a part of the equation too (don’t be so cynical!) since lowering the cost of Internet helps people with less money go online.

This is called zero-rating. Facebook’s Free Basics is one of the most famous and controversial examples, but nearly half of all mobile operators in the world now offer some form of zero-rated data plan or app that gives free access to services like Wikipedia, Whatsapp or Twitter.

Here’s the problem: offering free access to only parts of the Web sets a dangerous precedent for segmenting the Internet to consumers (eg. different content for different classes of consumers) which gives companies inordinate power to determine what we do online.

Already, many people think Facebook is the Internet. Others have no idea Facebook is on the Internet. How do we empower everyone to discover there’s more?

Who’s Doing Something?

Many governments have rules to protect “net neutrality” (eg. all content should be equal) which say that some forms of zero-rating violate the rights of consumers to access the open Web.

While most digital rights advocates agree that net neutrality is crucial to bridging digital divides, the question is whether it can co-exist with popular zero-rated services and increase competition between mobile operators, eventually lowering prices for all.

More research is needed to help us understand the threats and opportunities. For example, is zero-rating actually effective in creating new Internet users? The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) conducted an eight-country survey of 8,000 mobile Internet users, showing that only 1 in 10 people use zero-rating to access the Internet for the first time.

For the millions who wish to extend connectivity to the full Internet without paying, many new apps offer mobile data credits in exchange for ad views, app downloads, or even changing the ringtone to jingles. But some apps are privacy nightmares and log more personal information and behavior than users should be comfortable with (if only they knew).

Net neutrality advocacy is important to steering zero-rating and other mobile Internet ventures in the right direction, including privacy rights, says Chris Marsden from Sussex University in a study that examines zero-rating and net neutrality regulation in different countries.

In response to Free Basics, which has drawn scorn for lacking full Web access and privacy protections despite claiming to bring Internet to the people, we have seen constructive feedback from Andrew McLaughlin, Nanjira Sambuli and Steve Song.

What Can I Do?

About the author

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen is co-author of the cookbook "Recipes for a Digital Revolution". She writes a newsletter for Web We Want and helped create this website. Formerly, she was the managing editor of Global Voices Online. Solana is a Danish-Puerto Rican journalist and digital activist.


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