The World of Net Unneutrality: Is there an Upside?

These days, “net neutrality” is one of the biggest buzzwords around. In light of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) recent decision to weaken net neutrality restrictions, the overall jargon has not been positive, and understandably so. The deregulation of the internet allows Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to charge consumers and content providers (such as Facebook, Google, and Netflix) additional fees. However, there is a potential benefit that comes with the loss of net neutrality, one that no one seems to be talking about: zero-rating, and in particular, the zero-rating of non-profits such as Wikipedia.

Zero-rating is a process in which ISPs that provide cellular service (including Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile) allow certain apps to slide under the radar when calculating their data caps. For example, with T-Mobile’s “Music Freedom” program, customers can stream Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora without using up any of their data allowance. Exactly who pays for this service varies, but often the bill is picked up by the content providers themselves. ISPs hope that zero-rating services will attract more customers to their network, making up for the loss of profit from zero-rating apps.

Wikipedia has been a pioneer in the world of zero-rating. Since 2012, through a program called “Wikipedia Zero,” they have partnered with over 20 network carriers in 52 countries to provide free access to their website. These partnerships all take place in developing countries, where often peoples’ only connection to the internet is through their mobile network. By enabling free access to Wikipedia, the company jumps the barrier of cellular data costs, and puts knowledge in the hands of millions of people who normally could not afford to surf the internet.  The major difference between Wikipedia’s use of zero-rating and the programs initiated by the likes of T-Mobile is the program’s motive. While T-Mobile hopes to glean a profit from their Music Freedom program, Wikipedia is a non-profit organization. Thus, their mission of providing equal access to knowledge is philanthropic. 

While it seems like zero-rating only benefits consumers, it may go against the pre-established net neutrality laws. In 2015, the FCC launched an investigation into zero-rating programs offered by AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and T-Mobile. Each of these ISPs had partnered with a media provider to offer music and TV streaming free of data charges. The problem with zero-rating seems obvious. Favoring one network over another can be counted as preferential treatment, which net neutrality works to fight against. Not only does zero-rating favor one pre-established media company over another, but it can also hinder the creation of new companies. Think of it this way: if someone creates a music streaming start-up, it will be almost impossible to compete with Spotify and Apple Music, who have the benefit of zero-rating. Why pay to stream music from a new company, when your internet provider allows you to stream Spotify for free?

However, in February 2017, the FCC – headed by Republican Ajit Pai – closed the investigation into zero-rating. The FCC didn’t find the preferential treatment of certain apps to be anticompetitive. In fact, they claimed just the opposite: Chairman Ajit Pai said, “These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace.” Later in the year, the FCC gave even more freedom to ISPs by repealing the net neutrality laws put in place by the Obama Administration. This means ISPs now have the power to speed up or slow down broadband speeds for certain websites, and can charge both consumers and content providers additional fees for internet use. For example, Comcast can now charge Netflix (and Netflix viewers) an extra fee for taking up a lot of broadband. The lift of net neutrality regulations also means zero-rating is here to stay, since the legality of the programs is now indisputable.

The legalization of zero-rating is a possible silver lining to the net neutrality scandal, one that people seem to ignore in their discussions of internet policy. At the consumer level, it will be convenient for T-Mobile users to continue to use Spotify without paying data fees. But, more importantly, the change allows non-profits (such as Wikipedia) to continue providing free information to developing countries without fear of their partner service providers being prosecuted. Wikipedia has already discussed their complicated relationship with net neutrality. Gayle Karen Young, chief culture and talent officer at the Wikimedia Foundation, said, "Partnering with telecom companies in the near term, it blurs the net neutrality line in those areas. It fulfills our overall mission, though, which is providing free knowledge." Thus, if Wikipedia’s mission is truly to provide free knowledge to everyone, the loss of net neutrality may be a necessary sacrifice towards reaching their goal. Hopefully, the repeal of net neutrality will allow Wikipedia to further expand WikipediaZero, and possibly inspire other information providers to follow suit.

When looking at the status of net neutrality through the lens of zero-rating, the results of its repeal may not be as overwhelmingly negative as the media portrays. Hopefully, by allowing for zero-rating programs to be expanded, the policy change will level the global playing field just a bit more.