Zero Rating and Net Neutrality


There’s a growing debate about the role of zero rating approaches to provide Internet access. This discussion thread is intended to unearth the various viewpoints so that the community can get a better understanding of the issue. What are the benefits and draw backs of zero rating? How does zero rating impact net neutrality? And what alternate approaches can we develop that maintain and advance a free and open Web?

Net Neutrality in India (31 March 2015)

I find it hard to make a positive case for any form of zero-rating. When a commercial company does it, it’s clearly a strategy to privilege their content over their competitors’, and should be resisted. When a non-commercial organization like Wikipedia does it, it still seems to privilege them as an information source over others. Particularly if their app has scary warnings which say “You are now leaving the nice, safe, free Wikipedia and entering the bad, scary, expensive Internet. Are you sure?”

There might be a very limited role for e.g. zero-rating security updates for a user’s phone OS, or zero-rating carrier services like balance enquiries and account management.


Thanks for creating this thread.

While trying to understand the Indian issue, one important fact to keep in mind is that there was a spectrum auction in India in which the Telecoms had to pay US$6.1 billion to the Government for monopoly over 3G/4G/wireless spectrum. Also, the licensing conditions didn’t have conditions about Net Neutrality. Neither are there any laws about the same.

The main argument that Telecoms raise when it comes to Net Neutrality is that they cannot protect Net Neutrality and continue investing in expanding Internet acess to all parts of the country without going bankrupt. (While many think this is a lie and that they’re just looking for more profit, ) the government is sympathetic towards and partially responsible for this argument.

Now, when we look at zero-rating, we’ve to differentiate between all the different zero-ratings that are possible. Also, we have to think of who can avail this zero-rating - just those who can’t afford Internet or everyone.

There’s zero-rating sponsored by entities like Facebook ( and Airtel (Airtel Zero). These platforms are gatekeeper-ed. And they are available for everyone - rich or poor. (In fact, one of the advertisements of Facebook’s partner Reliance showed some rich kids using the free sites available and having fun.)

Then there’s zero-rating by not counting against data cap of certain websites by the Telecoms themselves to attract customers. This is where Wikipedia zero comes in. Some telecoms have provided WhatsApp free like this. Some twitter (during last cricket world cup)., a music streaming website was also provided on such a service. This is targetted at people who are already using the Internet.

Wikipedia is a special situation. 1) Wikipedia is free, open, and more importantly - comprehensive, all encompassing. 2) Wikipedia has a clear policy on how Wikipedia Zero should be made available.

No exchange of payment. The Wikimedia Foundation does not pay carriers to zero-rate access to the Wikimedia sites and does not receive payments from carriers through Wikipedia Zero.
Wikipedia Zero cannot be sold as part of a bundle. Access to the Wikimedia sites through Wikipedia Zero cannot be sold through limited service bundles.
No exclusive rights. We try to partner with as many carriers as possible to maximize the number of users that can benefit from the initiative.
Open to collaborating with other public interest sites. Our main goal is to promote free access to knowledge and we want to help other similar services interested in doing the same.

These are all fantastic ways to make sure that their good intention is not misused.

Now, these are existing zero-rating schemes. We can think of more schemes.

There could be government subsidized zero-rated Internet.
There could be government regulated zero-rated Internet that’s funded by Telecoms/commercial websites.
There could be, as WWW foundation said,

a free allowance of mobile data for each citizen, funded through a universal service fund
Enhanced investment in public wifi access points, anchored around public access facilities such as libraries, hospitals, schools or mixed use entrepreneurial areas

When comparing all these zero-rated schemes, it is easy to point out which schemes are good for the public and which schemes are bad. But the difficult comparison is which schemes are easy and which schemes are difficult.

For, schemes like are lucrative for the telecoms and the companies supporting it. And therefore, it is much easy to be implemented (in fact, it can be done by the flip of a switch I guess). But these do not lead to an ideal Internet.

We must oppose schemes that are arbitarily designed with no specific audience or time frame in mind.
We must support and strive to create those schemes which preserve the Openness of the Internet.

We can also push the Governments to find out even more creative solutions.


Two new Mozilla blogs were posted tonight that express Mozilla’s view on zero rating and our belief that equal rating is essential for economic inclusion and the health of the open Internet. Mozilla also recently urged India’s Prime Minister to heed the calls of more than a million Indians to defend real net neutrality. As support for change gains momentum, the opportunity level for billions of people depends on tackling the difficult questions of how we get there. In her blog post, Mitchell poses several questions. We’re curious to hear your input.

How can the private sector organize itself to provide a baseline “equal rating” for some amount of data necessary
for modern life at a discounted or no charge?

How can companies, foundations and non-profits interested in promoting social benefit on the Internet come together on creative approaches? What might they look like?


One way non-profits and individuals can promote the idea of “equal rating” is to offer an open wireless point.


Another challenge with Wikipedia Zero is that the citations that back up the article are unavailable. Many Wikimedians consider the external reference material part of the article: if you can’t read the primary sources, how can you be confident that the entry itself is valid content? You also can’t be an editor (a creator) without the ability to see outside content, you can only be a consumer. While editors are a small part of the Wikimedia community, it’s not an option to anyone on Zero.

I’d guess it’s a fairly controversial topic in their community too. Clearly they’ve decided that the benefits outweigh the risks right now. Wikipedia only because as the largest and most trafficked content publishing site on the web, they are commercially desirable. Mobile operators would subsidize free access to Wikipedia because consumers desire it, and it demonstrates the value of mobile data plans to consumers.


I’ve been writing a lot about this in other venues and commented on Mozilla’s position against zero rating services which I think is problematic.

In its statement, Mozilla alludes to the challenge of “some access is better than no access.” We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Some access is better than none. Users are smart and overcome content filtering around the world all the time. If anything, such a service might as well attach a “hack me” sign to its back.

Furthermore, just because a company pursues a strategy for a competitive advantage is no reason to outlaw it, especially a strategy whose opponents frequently include the words “fear,” “may,” and could. This is the language of FUD and it is unseemly for advocates of an open internet. If a business model does create anti-competitive results, regulators have anti-monopoly tools to deal with the situation.

We should not preemptively ban a service out of fear and limit the capacity of users arbitrarily and capriciously.


No they’re not. Most of the non-techie people don’t even know they are surfing the Internet within the filtering bubble. And great part of people even only surfing Internet within facebook itself.

The other part of the world is not similar to some countries like US that had long time Internet experience, to them Internet is just something on phone to helping them update the status of their friends.


On the contrary, lots of non-techie people know they’re being filtered all over the world. Having worked in the Middle East for the past five years, everyone knows the difference between the filtered and unfiltered Internet. I suspect that there are many Chinese users in the same boat. Furthermore, there are sizable groups of people in these countries who want filtering. The idea of an unfiltered Internet is a social norm that we should not take for granted.

There are certainly individuals globally unaware of filtering and think the Internet is Facebook. Even in the US, there are many senior citizens who claim they don’t use the Internet but skype with their grandchildren every week. Formal user ignorance should not be confused with practical user knowledge.


Trouble is, that means people are accessing the Internet in a way they haven’t paid for (and no-one else has paid for on their behalf), which is ethically problematic. Saying “zero rating is OK because users will find a way to defeat the content limitations and get Facebook (or other zero rating content suppliers) to unknowingly subsidise their full internet access” is not a great message.


Not a great message vs. getting some level of access to Internet resources.

I’m ruthlessly pragmatic and side with the latter. Users throughout history always decide their own message and appropriate technologies to their own ends. The challenge is getting technological tools into the hands of users and I’m in favor of policy that puts them there.


“Ruthless pragmatism” is not the Mozilla approach. We try and be pragmatic but while sticking to our principles, applying them to changing circumstances.

The pragmatic problem with ruthless pragmatism is that you often end up at a local minimum - you make some short-term gains, but at the cost of your long-term success. If most of the world ends up not knowing about the Internet, or equating it with Facebook, then that’s a massive long-term loss even if they got some limited access in the mean time.


It is fine and respectable that Mozilla is sticking to its principles and is not “ruthlessly pragmatic.”. Unfortunately, the state and corporate actors Mozilla must deal with make the efficacy of Mozilla’s pragmatism suspect.

The assertion that the rest of the world will equate Facebook with the Internet is dubious. If you look around today, even users in societies and countries with filtering know the difference between filtered and unfiltered Internet. Hence the wide use of VPNs for circumvention around the world. The assertion diminishes the autonomy and ingenuity of users. The history of technology is replete with examples of user initiative. The fear of is the fear that FB is smarter than billions of users which is questionable to say the least.


And yet they continue to hold billions of users in their tight clutch. Do we want to concede ourselves to it or focus on alternative, better, options? The question shouldn’t be between no internet and Facebook-net. While we are debating this we are losing precious time in exploring other choices (which corporates want us to ignore) like community owned mesh networks, proper use of government owned carriers, etc.


On the contrary, users choose to use Facebook. Network effects are powerful and I’m not denying that fact. Nonetheless, their “tight clutch” is nothing of the sort. It’s consensual.

You’re right of course that the choice shouldn’t be between no Internet and Facebook-net, but the reality is that for many, that is exactly the choice. What’s more few if any of those other choices have Facebook’s expertise, power, and influence to realise their solutions. Mesh networks and persuading governments to appropriately regulate take significant resources. We have not seen angel donors flock to the cause of universal global access. Until that happens, bringing imperfect access to those without is far better for those users than no access at all. And really as the ones with access, it shouldn’t be our choice; it should be the choice of those without access.


Continuing the discussion from Teaching Kit: Zero Rating in India:

If the Internet can automatically attract people (who are on zero-internet) into paying and getting access to it, it’d have attracted people who are offline now too. Also, if people can’t afford the whole Internet now, they can’t afford the whole Internet when they’re on zero-internet either.

I’m coming from the country I built the teaching kit for. We download demo software and trial software. At the end of the trial period, we either try to crack the key or abandon the software altogether. We do not pay the company and buy the software.

It’ll be harder to bring people from zero-internet to full Internet than to bring them from no Internet to full Internet.

The problem with Facebook is that although it is a limited version of the Internet, it is self-contained. It has just enough photos/posts/videos/news to keep people use it for as many hours per day as they’re devoting to it. Even people with access to full Internet find no need to go beyond Facebook most of the days. And there’s not going to be very compelling reasons to make people with access only to zero-internet to come out of it. The difference is that the people with full access, although they visit only Facebook on most days, they can visit another website if they want (and it’ll be a frictionless thing to do). But on zero-internet the user cannot visit the other websites at all.

Again from Teaching Kit: Zero Rating in India:

[quote=“jlaprise, post:5, topic:282”]
“Are they willing to pay less for a small part of the Internet vs paying slightly more for the entire Internet”

That depends. Does the “small” (this is a problematic term in and of itself. How small is it? What services/websites are available?) part meet their immediate needs? Can they actually afford to pay anything for Internet access? [/quote]

We have discussed this already. You are giving the poor only two options - pay for the entire Internet or choose the zero-internet for free. I want my government to give them third and fourth options - to choose a public wifi for limited time, or to choose a small amount of data for free, and all that.

And the very existence of people who say there are only two options is making it difficult for people like me to talk to our government about alternate options.

Censorship is a wholly different issue that needs to be tackled too. It is not a part of this debate.

Even then, censored sites in the full Internet (in India) are in hundreds (and are censored mostly for reasons like illegal content), not millions as in zero-internet (and censored for no reason).

Teaching Kit: Zero Rating in India

That’s a marketing problem; not a problem for users. Ease is not an excuse.

Really? If the walled garden of Facebook is so rich, what is the problem? And why disparage the ingenuity, creativity and curiosity of users? That argument aside, new users will certainly interact at some point with people using the full Internet, gain knowledge and experience, and may choose to make the switch.

Wanting this is great and laudable. But what do you do if the government chooses not to cooperate by offering such options. Do you deprive users of options because of this principle?

I categorically disagree. It is a part of this debate and we make it part of the debate when we tell users to reject zero point for the “full Internet.” Once those users come to discover that the “full Internet” is not actually full, how will they come to regard us and our claims? This is a question of user perception. What will they think the next time we make a claim? This damages the trust we are trying to establish with users.

On the contrary, both the Indian government and FB have reasons for blocking content. The government’s blocks are by definition, questions of legality. Facebook’s blocks are also legal but built within ToS. The rationales of the Indian government and Facebook are sometimes discernible and sometimes not but both entities have their reasons.


There are many reasons for zero rating and many of them center on bringing access to those least able to afford it.


I think I now know where our differences lie @jlaprise

You think that zero-rating is a market issue that the government shouldn’t be worried about. You want a free market. I want a regulated market which ensures that there is fair competition.

You are not worried about human behavior in a market while I’m worried about zero-rating, differential pricing, etc altering consumer behavior in ways that are detrimental to open Web.

You’re ruthlessly pragmatistic and want quick fixes. I want stable fixes in more idealistic ways.

And you equate a private corporation with a democracy while I find a difference between the two.

This discussion has been very useful for me in identifying my own core values. Thank you for that.


Not Quite

I don’t believe in pre-emptive regulation nor do I believe necessarily in unregulated free markets. I also don’t believe that government should not worry. It should act but not hastily. A free market equilibrium point might be detrimental to society but regulating before we have any idea of where that equilibrium point is based on fear not fact. “Fair competition” is a determination of regulators. I’d also point out that no market participant with an advantage wants fair competition; they want to retain their advantage.

To ask a follow-on question: why has a non-profit not offered a zero rating service in cooperation with telcos without the walled garden that FB imposes? Wouldn’t that be a great solution? The unpleasant reality is that such a non-profit has not stepped forward. In their absence, FB’s limited offering is the next best thing.

Worry is worthy of notice, but absent evidence, it’s just fear. History provides ample examples of user ingenuity. I am concerned, but again, absent actual fact I’m not rushing to judgement. Users have repeatedly demonstrated that their choices matter. Just ask AOL in the USA or remember MySpace?

I am ruthlessly pragmatic but that doesn’t mean I’m looking for a quick fix. Successful strategy frequently takes time to develop and implement and the FB option is merely a short term tactic. I want something that empowers users. I’m also idealistic, but I recognize, acknowledge, and respect structures of power and policy constraints. To do otherwise is to ignore reality.

I do not. In the US, we have significant and developing problems with the balance of power between citizens, corporations, and government. Read one of my essays on the perils of corporate personhood. IMO corporate power and personhood needs to be rolled back significantly. A corporation is not democracy. It is an animal driven by economic necessity and as such has a simple morality of profit (or creating customers depending on who you read). That is not necessarily and rarely is the goal of a democracy. As such they are very predictable and like animals they can be useful if domesticated or dangerous if feral. However, I do not prejudge them.

IMO FB’s initiative represents the greatest chance of bringing some, even limited Internet access to the globally unconnected than any other. No other organization or government has or is rolling out plans comparable in scope, resources, or political capital. To be sure there are other programs; poorer in resources, smaller in scope, though in some cases more expansive in terms of breadth of access. I’m interested in expanding access to more users. Period. Users have demonstrated throughout the global history of the Internet that they pick winners and losers.

I believe in us.