Norwegian Regulators Oppose App Zero Rating

Zero rating of any apps is a violation of network neutrality, according to Frode Sørensen, senior advisor at the Norwegian Post and Telecommunications Authority. "Internet users are entitled to an Internet connection that is free of discrimination with regard to type of application, service or content or based on sender or receiver address."

As with most aspects of network neutrality, the issue is complex and confusing, in part because bumper sticker slogans (“treat all bits alike;” “protect the Internet”) so often are used to simplify the argument in ways that can distort understanding.

The problem is that zero rating is a relatively common way of favoring consumption of some products, at the expense of others. When a value-added tax is not levied on many types of food and beverage, exported goods, donated goods sold by charity shops, equipment for the disabled, prescription medications, water and sewage services, books and other printed publications, children's clothing, and financial services, that is clearly “discriminatory,” but also furthers some valuable social objectives.

So yes, zero rating is unfair to the apps not being offered on a zero rated basis. But such favoritism can also be a good thing.

Ignore for the moment the issue of paid prioritization as used by content delivery networks.

Sørensen argues that even offering free use of some apps (zero rating), without requiring purchase of a data plan, is “discriminatory.” Some will argue that offering free access to some apps is a reasonable way to acquaint poor Internet non-users with some of the value offered by the Internet and its apps, and has potential to help connect billions of new users by creating demand for using the Internet.

As do most observers, Sørensen explicitly notes that traffic grooming is a necessary part of network management. In fact, outright blocking of access might sometimes be necessary, and in fact happens all the time when networks become congested. The only issue is whether reasonable steps can be taken--or ought to be taken--to manage congestion at peak hours.

“The goal of net neutrality is not that all traffic should be handled identically, which would never be possible in practice,” Sørensen notes.

The hard part, in that sense, is reconciling Internet openness and issues such as congestion.

Zero rating of apps “would constitute a violation of the guidelines,” Sørensen says. By the same logic, offering toll-free phone calls also violates the open nature of the telephone network, even if it provides direct value to consumers.

Protecting Internet openness for its users is a worthy and important goal. But keep in mind that zero rating typically applies to “non-subscribers” or “non-users,” and is an effort to connect those who cannot afford to use the Internet, even if in initially limited ways.

“Openness” might mean one set of things to people who use it. “Access” is the issue for those who cannot afford to use it. As always, there are contradictory goals for Internet policy, as for communications policy in a larger sense.

Competition is good, but so is investment, and the two goals ultimately are inversely related. “Equality” and “access” are in some ways also inversely related, in many markets where people can barely afford food and water. Providing wider access might require unequal treatment.

Many would agree that “the user decides” what they want to do when on the Internet. For those not able to use the Internet, offering some access, to some apps, also allows them to decide, with some obvious constraints. But that is true for all users, since not all Internet apps are available to all, at least not without payment of some kind.
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