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Net Neutrality and the Global Digital Divide

July 24, 2014

EFF's position on net neutrality simply calls for all data that travels over the Internet to be treated equally. This means that we oppose ISPs blocking content based on its source or destination, or discriminating against certain applications (such as BitTorrent), or imposing special access fees that would make it harder for small websites to reach their users. We have called for the FCC to assume firm legal authority to protect the neutrality of the net from these sorts of abuses, while explicitly forbearing from going any further to regulate the Internet.

Do we maintain this same position internationally? Absolutely. Users from around the world suffer the same sorts of problems—such as the blocking of VoIP services in the Caribbean, to the recently-defeated proposal to authorize a tiered Internet in Mexico, to deals that Spotify is striking with providers in countries such as Austria to offer flat-rate access to its own music streaming service, while users pay full price for competing services. In all of these cases, just like in the US, the result is to tilt the playing field in favor of deep-pocketed incumbents, and against startups and noncommercial content providers.

Does this mean that the same strategies that we are advocating in favour of net neutrality in the US should also apply to the rest of the world? Well, no. There is, of course, no international equivalent of the FCC (nor would we want one), so that rules out the option of global net neutrality rules—though there are global multi-stakeholder bodies discussing the development of non-binding principles or guidelines for net neutrality, which EFF is following.

This makes net neutrality regulation a domestic issue, and the correct approach to take will vary based on each country's circumstances. For example, countries like Japan, the Netherlands and Canada already have open access policies that require competitors to share access to network infrastructure on fair terms. In some cases (such as Australia, Sweden and Singapore) this has been accompanied by functional or structural separation of the dominant telecommunications operator, and/or by significant public funding for a national broadband network.

In yet other countries (such as South Korea and Hong Kong, China) competition flourishes even in the absence of open access or net neutrality rules, thanks in part to low barriers to entry for new broadband service providers resulting from those countries' smaller geographies, along with a low-cost regulatory environment. Open internet rules in these countries may not be such a priority as it is in the United States, where the broadband market is less competitive—and as EFF knows well, regulating without good reason can introduce new problems.

But in countries where threats to net neutrality have emerged or can be clearly seen on the horizon, this can provide good reason to support narrow, targeted open Internet rules.

Digital divide

Where things get more complicated is that there is a second problem that prevents users from around the world from accessing the Internet on fair terms. It's called the digital divide. This simply means that due to a combination of high access prices and low incomes, the cost of an unrestricted, neutral Internet connection in many countries is unaffordable to most. In some of those same countries, a solution offered by mobile providers is to offer “zero rating” of popular services.

What is zero rating? Similar to “fast lane discrimination”, where content providers pay a network provider to prioritize their content on its network, a service that is zero rated can be accessed for free from a (usually mobile) subscriber's device. In contrast, accessing competing services will eat into the subscriber's capped data allowance, or will incur extra fees if that allowance has been used up.

Services that are typically zero rated by providers in developing countries include the world's biggest Web properties—Google, Facebook and Twitter—as well as messaging services like WhatsApp, KakaoTalk and WeChat that can reduce the high cost of communicating through phone calls and SMS messages.

The zero rating of a Internet service is negotiated between the content provider and the network, and in most cases the terms of this negotiation are kept secret. An exception is the non-profit Wikipedia, which although certainly also a big Web property, does operate transparently in its negotiations with providers, and neither pays nor receives payment in exchange for its zero rating.

It goes without saying that users will be much more inclined to access a zero rated service than one for which they need to pay, and that this tilts the playing field in favor of the zero rated content owner. On its face, this isn't neutral at all. Yet some have argued that it is worth allowing poor consumers to access at least part of the Internet, even if they are shut out from accessing the rest of it because they can't afford to do so.

However, we worry about the downside risks of the zero rated services. Although it may seem like a humane strategy to offer users from developing countries crumbs from the Internet's table in the form of free access to walled-garden services, such service may thrive at the cost of stifling the development of low-cost, neutral Internet access in those countries for decades to come.

Zero-rating also risks skewing the Internet experience of millions (or billions) of first-time Internet users. For those who don't have access to anything else, Facebook is the Internet. On such an Internet, the task of filtering and censoring content suddenly becomes so much easier, and the potential for local entrepreneurs and hackers to roll out their own innovative online services using local languages and content is severely curtailed.

Sure, zero rated services may seem like an easy band-aid fix to lessen the digital divide. But do you know what most stakeholders agree is a better approach towards conquering the digital divide? Competition—which we can foster through rules that reduce the power of telecommunications monopolies and oligopolies to limit the content and applications that their subscribers can access and share.  Where competition isn't enough, we can combine this with limited rules against clearly impermissible practices like website blocking. 

This is the vision of net neutrality that EFF is working towards, both in the United States and around the world. We firmly believe that all the world's citizens deserve access to an open, neutral and secure Internet, in all its chaotic, offensive and wonderful glory. Whilst we appreciate the intent behind efforts such as Wikipedia Zero, ultimately zero rated services are a dangerous compromise.

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