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.
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