When Facebook Is the Internet: Zero-Rating and the Global Net Neutrality Debate

(Photo: Jonas Seaman)(Photo: Joseph Seaman)

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A group of high school students in the South African township of Joe Slovo Park wanted to use Wikipedia for homework and research, but the data charges for accessing the website on their mobile phone were too expensive. So, in 2012, they petitioned South African telecom providers to allow them to access the site for free.

The students waited for more than a year, but one company finally responded, announcing that it would partner with the Wikimedia Foundation and make a basic mobile version of Wikipedia called Wikipedia Zero available to its South African subscribers free of charge.

Launched in 2012, Wikipedia Zero can be viewed for free by subscribers of 40 telecom companies in 34 countries, including many developing countries of the Global South where mobile phones are the most common tools for accessing the internet. Wikipedia Zero boasts 65 million page hits per month, according to Wikimedia.

In September, a group called Access released a scathing critique of Wikipedia Zero, arguing that the service and others like it are akin to a “Band Aid on a bullet wound.”

The internet could be at your fingertips, but you only have a prepaid phone service, not an expensive data plan for the web. So, you use Facebook Zero as the internet instead.

Access describes itself as a digital rights group that believes access to the internet is crucial for advancing human rights. Wikimedia says it created Wikipedia Zero so mobile phone customers in the developing world can have access to the sum of all human knowledge, free of charge. So, what’s the problem?

“We were arguing against a practice of one of our friends,” said Access Advocacy Director Josh Levy, who considers Wikipedia an important ally on most issues. “But we think what they are doing is wrong.”

Levy is a longtime advocate of net neutrality, the idea that internet service providers should not discriminate against, block or create fast and slow lanes for certain web data to promote their commercial interests. Levy argues that services like Wikipedia Zero set a dangerous precedent that threatens net neutrality on a global scale.

His “friends” at Wikimedia, however, claim to be outstanding supporters of net neutrality who are only trying to do the right thing.

This may sound like a trivial techie squabble, but with millions of people expected to come online for the first time in the next few years, it has huge implications for the future of the internet, both at home and abroad. To understand why, let’s consider another “zero” wireless service – Facebook Zero.

Facebook Is the Internet

Imagine living in a part of the world where accessing the internet requires taking a bus into the city or paying a fee to use a computer at a café. Perhaps you have never been online at all. Now, imagine holding in your hand your new mobile phone that can connect to basic text versions of web pages. The internet could be at your fingertips, but you only have a prepaid phone service, not an expensive data plan for the web. So, you use Facebook Zero as the internet instead.

Facebook Zero is a text only, basic version of the hugely popular social media website that is only available in certain countries. Facebook struck a deal with your mobile provider, so you can read news feeds, post on your wall and chat with friends without paying any data charges.

Try viewing your friend’s latest selfie or surf the web beyond Facebook, however, and you’re alerted that expensive data charges will apply.

Critics argue that zero-rating allows tech and telecom companies to pick and choose what mobile users can access, a serious violation of net neutrality.

The deal between Facebook Zero and the mobile provider is known as “zero-rating.” It’s a growing trend across the world, especially in developing countries, where mobile devices with limited web capabilities are exploding in popularity, but few consumers can afford to pay for services beyond talk and text.

Companies like Facebook say that zero-rating allows users to access basic web services that are unavailable on older mobile phone models or are simply unaffordable, but critics argue that zero-rating allows tech and telecom companies to pick and choose what mobile users can access, a serious violation of net neutrality that sets a dangerous precedent for expanding a free and open internet across the globe.

Zero-rating has already popped up in the United States. T-Mobile offers some wireless subscribers access to music sites like Pandora and Spotify without charging for data, and Sprint offers cheap data plans that only allow users to connect to Facebook or Twitter.

Such deals may appeal to thrifty US consumers who don’t need to rely on their mobile phones for general web browsing, but when you consider developing countries, where mobile devices far outnumber laptops, zero-rated services like Facebook Zero start to sound a little creepy.

“It creates the impression that Facebook and the internet are interchangeable,” said Zach Seward, a senior editor at the tech magazine Quartz. As Quartz recently pointed out, Facebook may have convinced millions of first-time users of mobile devices in Africa that Facebook and the internet are the same thing.

I met Seward at “The Next Billion,” a conference Quartz recently held in New York City to address international connectivity issues with one billion new internet users in mind. Panels on net neutrality and the digital divide, two controversial issues we have covered extensively at Truthout, were taken off the conference agenda with little explanation.

“It’s a Trojan horse for a locked Facebook experience, which is nothing like the internet that you and I know.”

Still, the numbers make it clear that both issues will continue to be a big deal, both at home and abroad. A recent report by the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that the global online population has grown to just over 2.7 billion people, with 1.8 billion people coming online since 2004. Another 500 to 900 million are expected to join the online community by 2017.

Global internet traffic is expected to double by the end of 2016 thanks to the prevalence of affordable mobile devices, according to data crunched by Quartz. In Kenya, for example, 99 percent of internet access is from basic mobile devices like feature phones.

A typical, middle-class internet user in the United States may have learned to navigate the internet on personal computers at home or at a school or library. Low-income consumers in the United States and consumers in developing countries, however, are “leapfrogging” to mobile devices that are more affordable than PCs and MacBooks. Many of these consumers have prepaid plans with limited or no web data, and companies like Facebook are keenly aware of this.

Quartz reports that, within 18 months of the 2010 launch of Facebook Zero, the number of Africans on Facebook grew by 118 percent. Facebook had not only found a way to stay ahead of its competitors in emerging markets; it established an exclusive path toward ensuring the global dominance of its brand.

The service also had benefits for users, such as a free way to chat without paying texting fees. The service providers hosting Facebook Zero also benefit every time a user decides to pay for data in order to view pictures or follow a link that goes anywhere beyond Facebook Zero.

Seward said it makes economic sense for big tech companies like Facebook to make zero-rating deals with telecom service providers. If companies see a market opportunity in connecting people to the internet for the first time, they will also see an opportunity to provide those consumers with an internet experience that benefits their brands the most.

“It’s a Trojan horse for a locked Facebook experience, which is nothing like the internet that you and I know,” Seward said. On the other hand, he said, it’s hard to criticize a service that’s free. “It’s obviously better than nothing.”

Zero-Rating the Digital Divide

Allowing web users access to parts of the web based on what they are able to pay, however, is exactly why net neutrality advocates like Levy say zero-rating is a bad idea.

“[Zero-rating] is affecting net neutrality on a global scale; it’s one of these non-neutral trends that show up everywhere,” Levy said. “It’s incredible dangerous to start out with these zero-rated services in developing countries.”

Forget the flashy marketing campaigns about keeping the world connected. Levy said that internet service providers, mobile or otherwise, are not interested in connecting humanity to the entire internet. They would rather introduce new consumers to the internet in a “piecemeal” fashion that keeps “bumping people up the ladder” toward more expensive service packages. Giving out Facebook for free is not a charity service; it’s a way to draw in more customers and make more money.

“For millions of users, Facebook and Wikipedia would be synonymous with ‘internet.'”

Instead, Levy said, mobile providers could get creative and find other ways to promote their products without blocking their users from the entire internet universe that isn’t Facebook. Some service providers, for example, provide a limited data cap to new users so they can access the whole web and then decide if they want to pay for it.

Levy said that he doesn’t want to downplay the fact that services like Facebook Zero are useful to consumers, but “that shouldn’t come at the expense of the open internet.”

“You get a situation where yes, people get free Facebook, but then they have to pay huge fees to access banking or government services online,” Levy said.

So, what about Wikipedia Zero? Should an exception be made for a noble cause? In a blog post, Wikimedia Foundation deputy director Erik Moeller wrote that Wikipedia Zero should not be viewed as a violation of net neutrality because it is not a commercial program that can be offered in a service bundle or exclusively by certain providers.

In other words, no money is changing hands over Wikipedia Zero, so it does not undermine the organization’s commitment to net neutrality.

“It is not in the interests of the public to have an internet with slow and fast lanes where few commercial players dominate our information society,” Moeller wrote. “And it is absolutely in the interests of the public to use the internet to provide free access to education, knowledge, medical information, or other public services. We believe that these goals are entirely consistent, and we hope Wikipedia Zero can serve as a model for how to balance these interests carefully.”

Access, however, pointed out that Wikimedia does stand to benefit from the zero-rated program.

“The company’s own recently updated terms of service recognize that payment and benefit need not be monetary,” wrote Access European Policy Manager Raegan MacDonald. “In fact, Wikimedia is using its well-known trademarks as currency in deals with telecom partners as it seeks to acquire more users via Wikipedia Zero.”

“For millions of users, Facebook and Wikipedia would be synonymous with ‘internet,'” MacDonald continued. “In the end, Wikipedia Zero would not lead to more users of the actual internet, but Wikipedia may see a nice pickup in traffic.”

The internet does not exist in the vacuum of one country. Net neutrality is a global issue.

Access argues that offering a few zero-rated services to low-income consumers and new internet users in developing countries does little to address the underlying problems that contribute to the digital divide between the rich and the poor. Zero-rating also encourages telecom companies to continue to offer similar tiered access deals in the future, which could make the mobile web experience more like cable television than the internet.

“You’re setting a precedent,” Levy said. “It shows the telecoms that they can continue to strike these deals as they continue to develop the internet.”

Seward did not seem as concerned. He said market forces would eventually drive down the price of mobile data in the developing world, allowing users of Facebook Zero and others zero-rated services to afford access to more of the internet.

“Unless you are going to have the government or a utility regulating [mobile services] . . . market forces seem like a good thing,” Seward said.

That sort of regulation is exactly what net neutrality advocates are calling for, especially in the United States.

The World Is Watching the FCC

The debate over zero-rating comes as federal regulators in the United States are mulling over proposals to regulate broadband internet in order to protect net neutrality. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been taking public comments on proposals for months, and millions of comments have poured in as activists across the country mobilized a massive movement, both online and off, to demand that broadband internet be regulated like an essential public utility.

The agency is expected to vote on a proposal in December, but the FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, has indicated that vote may be delayed as the commission considers how to defend its net neutrality rules against inevitable legal challenges from the broadband industry.

“People are super, super aware because [the FCC] does set a precedent.”

Seward said he doubts the current debate over net neutrality at the FCC would have much of an impact on how other nations approach mobile broadband and zero-rating. The FCC, he said, is focused on fixed broadband services, not mobile services. Besides, technology moves much faster than federal regulators.

“Yeah, it’s important how the FCC regulates fixed broadband, but by the time they figure it out, [the internet] will be going mobile,” Seward said.

President Obama, however, recently released a statement urging the FCC to adopt tough net neutrality regulations and establish protections to mobile services as well.

Levy, who has worked with the group Free Press to lobby the FCC toward regulating broadband internet as a public utility, said activists and policy makers across the world are watching the FCC. After all, the internet does not exist in the vacuum of one country. Net neutrality is a global issue.

“If the FCC fails to protect the open internet and actually pass rules that protect users, then you are going to see telecoms everywhere push for similar policies,” said Levy, who added that the FCC could influence the policies set by other governments as well.

Levy suggested that it’s time to forget the Western mindset that assumes that everyone who lives in the developing world is suffering in some dusty back road of digital destitution. Consumers in developing countries are just as savvy as those in the United States, and their governments are totally capable of taking forward-thinking positions on internet policy. India, for example, has more internet users than there are people in the United States, and millions of people in Kenya are using banking services built into their mobile phones. That’s why activists across the world are watching the FCC.

“People are super, super aware because [the FCC] does set a precedent,” Levy said.

One of the few panelists to directly address net neutrality at “The Next Billion” conference was Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, the website that amplifies “Black America’s political voice” and is one of the largest online activist communities for people of color. He said net neutrality is important because access to a free and open internet is crucial for social movements as the world moves “from the information age to the participation age.” The internet “democratizes” information and gives people a new platform of political agency.

The big question, Robinson said, is whether “the internet is going to be as powerful for the next billion as it was for the first billion.”

The debates over zero-rating and net neutrality do raise some serious questions about the power of information and what it means to be connected in the modern world. At the heart of these debates, from Facebook Zero to the FCC, is one fundamental and global question: Should access to the internet, the almost endless resource created every day by the collective hand of humanity, be a privilege for those who can pay, or a human right?

Correction: This article originally stated that Josh Levy is the director of Access and Raegan MacDonald is a blogger for the group. Levy is the group’s Advocacy Director. MacDonald is the European Policy Manager. Also, Rashad Robinson is executive director of ColorOfChange.org, not a founder of the organization.