Everyone Should Be Getting Wikipedia for Free

Confusion over net neutrality rules has internet providers too scared to offer freebies, even though it's legal.


Wikimedia Foundation

Internet providers should be able to experiment with giving subscribers free stuff, such as access to Wikipedia and other public information and services on their smartphones. Unfortunately, confusion about whether today's net neutrality regulations allow U.S. providers to make content available without it counting against your data plan—a practice called "zero-rating"—has discouraged many companies from doing so, even though zero-rating experiments are presumptively legal under today's net neutrality regulations.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has already taken steps to clear away the discouragement of such experiments. After Ajit Pai took over as FCC chairman in January, he moved to end the investigations, begun under his predecessor, into companies that have tried to go down that path. And of course Chairman Pai also opened a rulemaking proceeding in April aimed at rolling back those rules, which invited and allowed the FCC's Wireline Bureau to start those investigations. But these steps alone haven't sent the kind of staunch, affirmative encouragement that's really needed.

The lack of clarity about zero-rating could change overnight, however, and it wouldn't require any new laws, any new regulations, any new quasi-formal inquiries from the commissioners—or even Pai's proposed rollback of the 2015 regulatory order. All it would take would be for Pai to call openly (in speeches or interviews, say, or other public appearances) and frequently for internet providers to experiment with adding zero-rated public information to their offerings.

Zero-rating experiments can be a win-win-win: Customers get access to more useful content for the same price; companies have more options for attracting users and expanding their business; and society at large benefits when greater numbers of people are exposed to valuable resources such as Wikipedia, public-health information, and other non-commercial apps and websites.

But the big fear among some net neutrality activists is that commercial zero-rating will favor well-heeled incumbents over lean new innovators. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) put it in 2016, "The most dangerous of these plans, such as the AT&T and Verizon offerings, only offer their users zero-rated data from content providers who pay the carriers money to do so. Such 'pay for play' arrangements favor big content providers who can afford to pay for access to users' eyeballs, and marginalize those who can't, such as nonprofits, startups, and fellow users." Even non-commercial zero-rated offerings may a problem, EFF argued. These include the risk of "distorting" content consumption in favor of already-popular non-subscription services (think Google's search engine or Facebook) or the "walled garden effect"—i.e., that some price-sensitive customers may choose never to venture outside of the zero-rated services sponsored by the internet provider.

But what evidence we do have suggests that zero rating enables net new traffic, because people visit destinations that they would not otherwise. Roslyn Layton of Aalborg University has shown that at least 10 million people in developing countries use free data to access pregnancy and AIDS information.

The fact is, information sources like Wikipedia regularly drive traffic to the larger internet. A zero-rated, stripped-down, low-bandwidth version of the free online encyclopedia, called Wikipedia Zero, is already offered in dozens of developing countries around the world, which actually makes it easier to find relevant information and services on the non-zero-rated web. For instance, the Wikipedia entry for "Wikipedia Zero" includes links pointing users to both nonprofit sites and for-profit, advertising-supported sites—including many sources that are themselves critical of the Wikipedia Zero platform for being "inconsistent" with certain conceptions of network neutrality.

As I've written here before, I favor both net neutrality as a general principle, understood as an evolution of the common-carriage rules that have long governed telephone service and traditional mail as well as an evolution of the internet's history as an open platform that anybody can provide new content or services for. But I've also written in favor of a zero-rating as a tool (though hardly the only one) that I believe could help bring the rest of the world online in my lifetime.

I can hold both positions because I reject the prevalent view that "net neutrality" means internet providers have to treat different types of web content absolutely identically—especially if it stops someone from giving free but limited web access to those who wouldn't otherwise have internet access at all—and who could learn about the larger internet through the external links embedded in free, open resources like Wikipedia.

The digital divide isn't just a global problem. It's also an issue much closer to home: Pew Research Center data indicate that Americans who rely on their mobile devices for their sole or primary source of internet access are disproportionately from the lowest income groups. Pew identifies a broad group of Americans (about 15 percent) as "smartphone dependent," and concluded in a comprehensive 2015 paper that "even as a substantial minority of Americans indicate that their phone plays a central role in their ability to access digital services and online content, for many users this access is often intermittent due to a combination of financial stresses and technical constraints."

Editing or otherwise contributing to Wikipedia may crowd your data cap, because if you write or edit an entry, you typically have to reload (and maybe keep reloading) it to see how the changes look. This can require two or more orders of magnitude more bandwidth than just consulting Wikipedia does. But Wikipedia as an informational resource depends on ongoing contributions from everyone—not just users who can afford to pay for "unlimited" data.

The best-case scenario is a world in which every American is motivated to take advantage of the internet, in which we all have access to the whole internet, and in which internet providers can afford to offer that level of service to everyone. The best way to get to that point in a hurry, though, is to get more people online and sampling what the web has to offer. Encouraging non-commercial services like Wikipedia Zero and Facebook's Free Basics can help make that happen.

Pai and, ideally, other commissioners should come out strongly and expressly—via speeches and other non-regulatory forums, including responses to press inquiries—in favor of internet providers offering zero-rated services, especially those that aren't pay-for-play. Repeatedly sending the right message can do as much as deregulation to encourage innovation of this sort.

I'd also want the commissioners to urge U.S. internet providers to share their data about whether zero-rated services improve internet adoption, both among smartphone-only users and in general. With more information, the FCC can make more informed decisions going forward about what kinds of open-internet regulations to adopt—or to remove.

NEXT: Uber, But for School Buses

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  1. The only problem is if we let the government decide what is ‘good’ and should be free, and what is ‘ungood’, they may not choose Wikipedia free. They may determine NPR and the DNC are the ones to be spread far and wide.
    What then?

    1. Pitchforks and torches.
      Then guillotines.

      1. Too quick.


      2. To hep out the idiots here are two good articles to help you understand the real cost of data and these are pessimistic in pricing…as in being generous on the ISP side of costs. It is unlikely that it is even $1 per GB for cell phone data. I would wager it is more like 10-50 cents per GB.

        Land lines are sub 1 cent at most these days.

        1. its probably 10-50 cents per GB for 4G data. It also depends on what band you are using. Data on Sprints band 41 is very cheap because there is large amounts of cheap spectrum but data on 700mhz is substantially more expensive.

          So maybe data on 700mhz is $.50-1 but band 41 is like 10 cents.

  2. Net neutrality seems like something a National Socialist Party leader from the mid 20th century would have supported…

    1. Damn, that’s perilously close to Godwin-ing a comment thread for an article by…Mike Godwin, the originator of Godwin’s Law.

      (BTW, I generally reject “net neutrality” as usually defined, but am in favor of some things that sometimes travel under the same label.)

      1. That’s pretty awesome!

  3. The purpose of an Open Internet is to let the market/me decide which sites to visit – not the ISP or government. How “libertarians” now favor the latter proves “libertarians” can be brainwashed too.

    1. Please elaborate, liar.

      Have you paid up yet? — No , of course not.

      1. It is simple. You favor the closed Cable TV model for the internet – where your cable provider chooses your programming array and provides “options” for you to choose from.

        I favor an open neutral internet where I choose my programming.

        1. I wut?

          You are more delusional than normal today. Good luck with your meds.

          1. That is the essence of what this debate is about.

            I favor an open and neutral internet – you do not.

            1. you seem like the type of guy who would support the fairness doctrine because you don’t understand how markets work.

              I’m confused — there wasn’t an open and neutral internet before 2016?

              1. Of course not! It was full of bog posts asking if he’d paid up yet. How can that be neutral or fair and balanced,especially without a government forcing him to answer? By definition, because he hasn’t answered, it is not fair and balanced, and thus was not neutral.

              2. Actually, net neutrality whiners are even more delusional than normal, since the previous net neutrality regs never went into force — all that happened is preventing them from coming into force later.

                NOTHING HAS CHANGED, yet the world is turned upside down.

                1. “NOTHING HAS CHANGED, yet the world is turned upside down.”

                  Sorta like the screamers:
                  ‘Trump is a big meanie. He’s gonna make the air black!’

            2. “I favor an open and neutral internet – you do not.”

              Turd, here, favors a government-regulated internet and is either too stupid to understand or an outright liar.
              Yes, both.

            3. An open, neutral internet can’t be government controlled. If it is, it is neither open nor neutral, by definition.

        2. What internet service are you using that doesn’t allow you to choose what internet sites you go to?

    2. Because what kind of libertarian would leave market suppliers free to make decisions about what they supply?

    3. Palin’s Buttplug also wants the market/him to decide which cities he can visit. He doesn’t want airlines deciding how much to charge for airfare tickets based on arbitrary things like distance, number of travellers, fuel cost, or airport size.

      1. That, and package neutrality.

        All packages should be treated the same – two thousand .5lb packages should cost the same as a single 1000lb package or ten 100lb packages.

        There shouldn’t be any sort of fast lanes or companies having to pay a “toll” to get their package to someone faster.

    4. Re: Peter Caca,

      The purpose of an Open Internet is to let the market/me decide which sites to visit

      No, the purpose of a so-called “Open Internet” is to turn what is a privately-owned and managed service into a commons with the resulting price and use discrepancies prevalent in all commons.

      If the idea of paying for access like one pays for seats in a baseball game doesn’t please you, you can always try going back to reaading books from the public library, if you can find those titles you fancy.

  4. Looks like Welch, Gillespie, and Bailey’s beloved throat-cutting ululating Islamonazis went on another one of their insane, murderous rampages from hell in poor London.

    What a shame there’s just about no one here left to talk about it.

    1. I thought calling them “radical Islamists” was supposed to end these terror attacks. That is what every wingnut/GOP type said would happen if Obama would just courageous enough to use those words.

      How could you Trumptards be so wrong (again)?

      1. Any remotely halfway sane human being would do what Trump wants to do, which is to keep any more of those animals from coming into our countries while we deal with the ones who are already here.

        Of course you’re as fucked up as those animals are. You probably enjoy seeing innocent people get their throats cut while sitting at the pub enjoying a pint.

        1. You should remember from my many posts here that I hate all religion and despise Islam the most by far (as it is the most vile form of conservatism).

          So Trump fucked up the one thing he promised to do that I wanted for him to do.

          1. “You should remember from my many posts here that I hate all religion and despise Islam the most by far (as it is the most vile form of conservatism).”

            Turd, here, worships the government and finds it is a jealous god.

          2. Quit lying, you piece of garbage. You don’t give a rat’s ass how many people your buddies kill!

      2. Re: Peter Caca,

        I thought calling them “radical Islamists” was supposed to end these terror attacks.

        By the same token, calling them simply “violent extremists” was supposed to appease radical Islamisms by making an implicit statement that there’s no war against Islam. Seems like nothing is working one way or the other, is it?

        But at least by calling them “radical Islamists”, the point is made that these radicals are not ex-college students who have gone underground but are, in fact, motivated by different ideas. Correct?

  5. Net Neutrality is such a poorly defined concept that even its proponents don’t really know what it is, other than “not letting corporationz ruin the internet” or “having the government save the internet”, both of which are ludicrous. When they get down to the nitty gritty of complaining that “pay to play” is immoral and biased, they forget that it frees up the remaining paid bandwidth for other uses. The bandwidth used for free no longer counts against the paid bandwith; isn’t that good? A naive questioner might think the answer obvious, but the typical statist refuses to admit any benefit from private shenanigans, and refuses to admit that government can do any evil.

    1. Yeah, in my experience the argument for “net neutrality” always comes down to motive – preventing corporations from adopting hypothetical unfair practices – and not details about what the actual regulations will be, how they will be enforced, what the trade-offs might be. It’s a prime example of vague feel-good do-somethingism.

      1. Well…. that’s the line they sell anyway.

        The real argument is that government needs to control everything everywhere all the time.

  6. “Zero-rating” huh. So after Mr. Godwin decides how much of its product ISPs are forced to give away for nothing, can we “zero-rate” Godwin’s column so that Reason does not compensate him for his labor here?

    1. Wait–Reason’s going to pay me for this?

  7. I’m starting to get confused about who is on what side of the net neutrality issue. But as a libertarian, how about the ISPs and content providers are free to make whatever deals and offer whatever “free” products they like and consumers are free to react with their wallets? Then if a provider is found to be in violation of antitrust laws, it gets dealt with at that time.

    I have not heard a compelling argument (especially a libertarian or free market one) for creating new government regulations to solve a problem that has not occurred yet.

    1. The problem are monopolies. Comcast and other ISPs have the ability to force business out of the market and distort pricing.

      It happens often and is getting worse as certain ISPs own more and more of the market with too large of a barrier to enter.

  8. Wikipedia is so statist-biased that it’s been superseded. Everyone should use instead.

    Of course, if Mr. Godwin got his way, doing so would mean we have to pay more to receive it.

  9. As I’ve written here before, I favor both net neutrality as a general principle… But I’ve also written in favor of a zero-rating as a tool…

    So, you’re the typical statist, progressive prick: you signal your good intentions and demand that people respect you for it, but in reality, all you deliver is shitty regulations and crony capitalism.

  10. Libertarians hate the concept of “public” (even though libertarian scholars have shown that it is consistent with the framework of libertarianism), but this is a clear case of a public utility. It is illegal for me to string wires across town to offer a competing service. And it’s not just because I’m not in the internet game; companies with the overwhelming influence and money of Verizon aren’t even allowed to do it in a lot of places.

    So as long as it’s a public utility, there’s no reason we should expect that people have the power to vote with their feet. And as long as that’s true, there’s ample reason why there should be sufficient oversight and regulation. Comcast is going to just have to find a way to live with being a public utility company and be thankful that they don’t have to be a non-profit to be in that role.

    1. Satellite internet services do exist, and will be getting better in the future.

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