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Zero Rating, a Poisoned Chalice for the Developing World

A very Interesting meeting The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) with an ambitious theme of connecting the worlds next billion people to the Internet took place in early November 2015 in a beautiful resort city of João Pessoa in Brazil under the auspice of the United Nations. Few citizens of the world paid attention to it yet the repercussions of the policy issues discussed affect us all.

Each year, there is one topic that takes the world by storm at the IGF. Two years ago, it was surveillance. This year, it was net neutrality. Net neutrality in its most basic form is the ability of Internet service providers to treat all content that pass through their network equally. For example, Vodafone should not give preference to Wikipedia offering it for free, or Airtel should not give preference to Youtube, giving it a fast lane at the expense of other websites. There are many ways to which net neutrality is abused, among them traffic shaping and zero rating.

Zero rating means the end user does not pay for accessing a certain service, but the websites the end user can access are limited. For example, the user will only have free access to Facebook, or Wikipedia, and nothing else. The content the user can access is determined by those with financial power. And there lies the problem, limited access for the end user. You see, the Internet is a public good, an engine for economic growth and development. The utilitarian approach is therefore to ensure as many people as possible have access to the Internet for a nation to attain its economic potential.

At the IGF, researchers took sides on zero rating depending on their interests. A research in Asia revealed that zero rated services were an entry point for people who had no access to Internet, and those who used zero rated services converted to paid users after a while. Another research showed that people don’t use the Internet not because of the cost or availability, but because they don’t need it. Weird conclusion I can say. An interesting fact is; in communities where zero rated services were the norm, the users did not know the difference between the Internet and Facebook. That is a major problem if you ask me. Another research by Mozilla Foundation dubbed equal rating found that when users are given Internet bundles, they accessed diverse types of websites, not just one single website. But the big question was who funded these types of research? For example, Facebook was accused of flying powerful Cabinet Ministers from developing countries to expensive resorts in California to influence them allow zero rated service in their countries. It therefore goes that we need proper research on the long term economic implications of zero rating.

We should say no to zero rating because it leads to monopolistic behaviours, anti-competitiveness, and customer lock-in. Zero rating gives a false Internet because it removes incentives for giving the underserved regions a proper Internet. Remember the definition of Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks, not just a single website. Companies running zero rated services are crafty and just want to add up number of users to their platforms to increase their advertisement revenue streams, therefore increase their companies’ valuation and appease their shareholders. Zero rating stifles innovation because innovators are not able to penetrate the market where market leaders with tonnes of money have directed all the users to their own services.

Zero rating is here with us. In Kenya and India, Airtel partnered with Facebook to offer Free Basics, a service that allows users to only access specified websites. There are variations of the same in most parts of the developing world. Some countries too have weighed the pros and cons and outlawed zero rating; Chile, Norway, Finland, Netherlands, Estonia, Iceland, Finland, Latvia, Malta, Japan, and Lithuania among others.

The governments in my part of the world have not taken any steps to protect the users, and innovators among us from such demeaning service. What is more annoying is governments’ inaction to formulate proper ICT policies that move with the rapid changing times. Some countries in the developing world do not have ICT policies, and those that have, have out-dated policies developed more than a decade ago. That is not how to participate in the knowledge economy. It is sad to have governments with pools of policy expert, who cannot formulate proper policies for the masses. Isn’t it Plato who said, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light!”

All that notwithstanding, the communities that are affected should pay keen interests to the following points:

  • Zero rating is not tolerated in progressive countries with strong policies. Ask yourself why.
  • Without policy on Net Neutrality, regulators have nothing to enforce thus leaving market players to their own devices, and anti-competitive behaviour.
  • The communities, in an all-inclusive manner should develop Net Neutrality policies in their respective regions.
  • Most regulators and government agencies are usually given targets to ensure universal coverage of communication services. They are very happy to maintain the status quo since they will report zero rated services as a metric of increased Internet access. This will be a big lie because they will have denied the rural folks access to the Internet. We all know one website is not the Internet. The best practice is to have the regulator pressure telcos increase rollout in under-served regions as part of their Universal Service obligations.
  • Zero rating infringes on fundamental human rights by denying users access to the Internet. It may be a conspiracy to keep developing countries in the darkness of the information age.

The case for affordable internet for everyone.

Advocates for universal broadband access have for a long time urged communities to advocate for universal coverage, better utilisation of Universal Service Fund, telecommunication infrastructure sharing, increased road coverage, accessible wayleaves and cable ducts, affordable energy, fair and competitive licensing regimes, and local content and hosting. All these are policy options that will ensure the COST of broadband internet comes down to a level where every citizen in the developing world can afford. Is it possible? The good news is technology to provide universal broadband is here with us. According to an article that appeared in Kenya’s Daily Nation, a pilot project in Nairobi’s poor neighborhoods showed that it was possible to realise a cost of less than $0.1 for a 3000mbs of broadband bundle. As you can see, with simple solutions, affordable broadband will be the new normal. These simple steps are the game changers.

As Vyria Paselk, Director of Internet Leadership at Internet Society put it, “if your country does not have access to the Internet, then you are not participating in the internet economy”. And isn’t the entire world now an Internet economy?

By Mwendwa Kivuva, Internet Governance enthusiast

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