One of the most heated debates in recent tech history has been about whether “some of the Internet is better than no Internet at all”. This controversy made global headlines when Facebook and mobile operator Airtel launched the “Free Basics” package in India, which exempts Airtel customers from mobile data charges when accessing Facebook and a handful of other sites.
At stake is not just tech company and mobile operator plans for lucrative new markets such as India, but the idea of net neutrality: the principle which holds that no Internet traffic should receive preferential treatment, giving an unfair commercial or political advantage to some content or service providers and thereby undermining user choice, competition and free expression.
At the Web Foundation, we are strong believers in net neutrality. As our founder Tim Berners-Lee has said: “The Web evolved into a powerful and ubiquitous platform because I was able to build it on an open network that treated all packets of information equally. This principle of net neutrality has kept the Internet a free and open space since its inception.”
We are also strong believers that everyone, everywhere, needs Internet access in order to pursue and achieve their basic human rights. Lack of Internet access not only denies people the ability to participate effectively in civic and political life, it also costs jobs, development, and sometimes lives.
So — while it is clear to us that commercially subsidised data services are primarily driven by market motives, not philanthropic goals — we still felt there could be a social benefit that might counterbalance or even outweigh concerns about competition and user choice. Where access gaps are large and pressing, could commercially subsidised mobile Internet service help to close these gaps in the short term without seriously endangering competition, innovation, free expression and privacy over the longer term? Are there cases in which the benefits of bringing more people online faster through zero-rating might outweigh the net neutrality harms?
We were convinced that India could solve its access problems without resorting to zero-rating or other forms of commercial subsidy that violate net neutrality, as our submission to the Indian regulator argued. But we were mindful that the situation might be different in other developing countries where the hurdles to access are larger and resources are fewer. We wanted to see concrete evidence of the impact on mobile data services. Today’s report from the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), a Web Foundation-led initiative, takes an important step towards closing that evidence gap.
Thanks to a survey of 8,000 mobile Internet users in eight developing countries*, we now know that:
- Only 1 in 10 zero rating customers (12%) are first time Internet users. Most people seem to be using zero-rated plans to top up their existing paid data purchases or public WiFi use. While the study targeted mobile phone Internet users generally and not the poorest users specifically, even doubling these figures suggests that zero-rating cannot be a major tool to bring more people online.
- Users prefer access to all of the Web, not just a limited bouquet of zero-rated services. In fact, when asked how they would like to get “free data”, 82% of users surveyed responded that they would prefer to have the “free plan” valid for a short time or with a data cap, but with no restriction on the websites and applications that can be accessed.
- 21% of respondents selected public WiFi as their primary method of connecting to the Internet on the mobiles, with this figure rising as high as 40% in countries like Peru and 34% in the Philippines where free WiFi is more widely available in places like shopping malls and fast-food outlets. This strengthens the argument for investing in more and better public WiFi hotspots in community centres, public libraries, and other central locations as a critical ingredient in access strategies.
In short, the A4AI research finds that “free” mobile data services that restrict users to a narrow slice of the Web are ineffective in bringing more people online, and are rejected by users themselves as anything other than a way to “top up” other forms of (unrestricted) Internet access such as public WiFi and paid data. If the social benefits of such services are weak or unproven, then the argument shifts back to the potential impact on competition, consumer choice, and free speech — all areas in which more evidence is still needed.
The onus is now on the providers of “free” services. If they are truly interested to give users what they want, they need to provide subsidised options that are open to the entire web and that avoid compromising net neutrality and ensure that ICT markets can continue to grow through the dynamics of healthy competition.
To find out more on the survey results, see the full report here and follow @webfoundation for updates as A4AI prepares its next report in the Impacts of Emerging Mobile Data Services in Developing Countries research series. You can also find out about the types of data plans currently offered in the series’ first report, “Models of Mobile Data Services in Developing Countries”.
*The eight countries surveyed are: Bangladesh, Colombia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Peru and the Philippines.