If Zero Rating Leads Rapidly to Full Use of the Open Internet, is that a Problem?

The debate over zero rating is complicated because it spans domains; tactics for increasing Internet access and use, and also highly valued principles.

On one hand, some think Internet.org is a proven way to dramatically increase sampling of the Internet by people who have not used it before, as well as a bundle of value that has proven to create significant sustainable demand for Internet access services.

Some matters are incontestable: if one’s objective is to quickly encourage people to try the Internet and its apps, Internet.org has proven it works.

It also is true that Internet.org raises some thorny issues about “permissionless innovation” and the notion of curated apps.

No doubt, Internet.net curates apps. It perhaps is not, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues,

And “neutrality” actually is not the central issue. Curation is the issue.

As EFF notes, the  “guidelines are neutral as to the subject matter of the site.” In other words, no category of apps, or type of content, are excluded.

On the other hand, Internet.org knows full well there are severe bandwidth limitations in its target markets. To improve end user experience, Internet.org deliberately wants apps curated so that they work reasonably well even in a very challenging bandwidth environment.

In other words, Internet.org wants the apps to work even on inexpensive feature phones, on slow data networks. So yes, apps have to “ask permission” in terms of being architected to work on bandwidth-limited networks.

Specifically, that means stripping out images greater than 1Mb in size, videos, VoIP calls, Flash and Java applets and JavaScript.

EFF would prefer a uniformly rate-limited or data-capped free service. “We have confidence that it would be possible to provide a limited free Internet access service that is secure, and that doesn't rely on Facebook and its partners to maintain a central list of approved sites,” EFF argues.

The matter is complicated. Keep in mind that nobody gets paid anything as part of the Internet.org program. All apps and app providers can participate. The program works.

Against that, EFF suggests a program that simply offers free access.

Ignoring the philosophical objections to curation, it is not so clear that simple “no charge” access is sustainable. That is not to disparage the effort; simply to acknowledge that large numbers of mobile service providers have not yet done so.

We do know, on the other hand, that time-limited programs such as Internet.org has organized, with “free access” ending at some point, have worked to significantly expand the base of regular Internet users.

Globe Telecom in the Philippines found the number of data users on Globe’s network doubled, after offering Facebook on a zero rated basis for about a year.

The portion of Globe’s prepaid subscriber base who were active on mobile data expanded from 14 percent in September 2013 to 25 percent in November 2014, Facebook and Globe say.

In other words, the mobile Internet customer base nearly doubled.

Globe’s Free Facebook campaign (and similar internet outreach efforts by other players in the market), led to a six million increase in the number of active mobile internet users in the Philippines as a whole.

Both EFF and Internet.org support rapidly getting people to use the Internet. Globe Telecom found “free Facebook” did so.

There are philosophical issues and principles at stake, to be sure. But Globe Telecom’s experience might suggest the disagreement is more about tactics. Rather quickly, people migrate off the promotions and to the open Internet.
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