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Zero-Rating and the Creation of Digital Castes

During the last Internet Governance Forum in Istanbul, a day was devoted to Net Neutrality with three panels devoted to the subject. The first was exactly about Zero-Rating: Net Neutrality, Zero-Rating & Development: What’s the Data? the second was Network Neutrality: a Roadmap for Infrastructure Enhancement and last, the main session Network Neutrality: Towards a Common Understanding of a Complex Issue and Zero-rating was discussed on all three panels.

Zero-rating, or sponsored data, is the practice of mobile network operators (MNO) and mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) to not charge end customers for a well defined volume of data by specific applications or Internet services via the MNO’s Wireless network in limited or metered data plans and tariffs.

The price of this free will be very high to developing countries. I realize that the damages of Zero-Rating outweigh the benefits, in Brazil for example, free Facebook has reflected numerically the goals of digital inclusion in the government, but on the other hand we have new users doomed to be eternal digital illiterates.

Just imagine the people that their first Internet experience was through zero-rating services. You must admit there is a big gap between your perception of the Internet, as digital immigrant, and the perception of digital natives. Imagine the size of the gap between the perception of the Internet by someone who was “digitally literate” with blinders.

The zero-rating proponents argue that the user has free choice of content, but how can they choose between options they are unaware of? More than 76% of mobile phones are prepaid at Brazil, the poorest often credited small values on their phones and less frequently, since they can keep getting calls for months without any credit value. But with zero-rating they can access free Facebook, their vision of Internet. Anytime when one external link is clicked, a message informs the user if he continues there will be a charge. It’s not difficult to imagine what this user will decide.

By simply limiting the possibilities of access for one segment of our society, we are creating a true digital caste system where the poorest will be condemned to eternal digital ignorance. Eli Pariser, in his book The Filter Bubble, shows how the personalization (the bubble) affects creativity: Limiting the “solutions horizon”, decontextualizes information, and reduce the possibilities to search and acquisition of more informations. It’s necessary to be very wary of the generosity provided by zero-rating: content provider could create a system of curation, providing a false digital inclusion, but keeping track of the information that users can receive, the name of this is social control.

The other face of this threat are running now at Chile, where the Telecom companies are saying that the net neutrality is the reason Chile “killed” the free access to Wikipedia and Facebook. The perplexity on this understanding is tentative to naturalize the zero-rating as Internet free access concept. This battle will soon come to Brazil with the regulation of the “Marco Civil” that can ban zero-rating.

Moving to economical arena, zero-rating is very dangerous to innovation, since the user can’t see and try new projects and online services until the entrepreneur makes a zero-rating agreement.

By Joao Carlos Caribe, Independent consultant and Master on Information Science

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