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Zero Rating: Something Is Better Than Nothing! Or Is It?

Said Zazai

One of the primary purposes of global Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is to introduce a wide range of topics to newcomers and provide them with the opportunity to take back what they have learned in the hopes of establishing an understanding of the Internet Governance philosophy at the community or national level. As a first time participant at the 10th Global Internet Governance Forum (IGF 2015) that took place in Joao Pessoa Brazil, in early November of 2015, I felt the burden of being a representative from a developing country, a place where discussion of important issues is limited to a small group of individuals, often in informal settings, over coffee or in my case, green tea. The conference however, was a platform where discussions took place between key stakeholders including government personnel, regulators, civil society as well as Internet services providers.

I felt overwhelmed as I was listening to discussions on relatively new and some familiar topics. The burden felt heavier as I realized that the resources available to me to introduce or actualize these discussions to my community were much more limited. This was partly because of the supply side of the resources and also because of the interest within the community. Most of civil society, government, private sector and even technologists in Afghanistan simply do not seem concerned about the architecture of the internet technologies, physical location of a root server or the treatment of information intermediaries with our data. Instead, the topic that appears to be of more importance to our community is access and zero-rated packages offered by the telecommunication companies.

Zero rating is a pricing strategy by the Internet providers where web services are discriminated based on its content. It might come in different flavors in developed and developing countries but the overall purpose is that giant corporations provide free or cheaper access to their content while disallowing or throttling the rest.

But let me give you another fact as well. In my country, Afghanistan, the phrase "something is better than nothing" is widely known and accepted both culturally and religiously. The notion behind this phrase is the concept of thankfulness but it could also be interpreted as "take whatever you are offered, keep your expectations low and don't ask for more or you will get nothing!" We literally had next to NOTHING in terms of Information Technology or Internet access 13 years ago. The whole of the country had a few hundred or maybe thousand landlines and internet was introduced to citizens at an extremely high cost through microwave satellites after 2002. So "nothing" is a scary fact that almost every internet user has experienced and still experience on a regular basis from terrorists who routinely target our sole fiber optic line by cutting them.

Thus, the zero rating approach in developing countries carries the same meaning and the telecom companies along with the government and regulator either shut down or disregard any voices that raise concerns over the filtering of the internet. Filtering is what technically happens when Internet services providers with an agreement with Information intermediaries only offer one or a few of the billions of the applications available over the internet.

Aside from this traditional shutting down mechanism, the government or the regulator does not have a net neutrality policy. So for them the issue has not been identified as a problem and the workable solution to the issue would be to exchange one zero-rating package with another.

Moreover, there are other challenges which further hinder in the development of net neutrality policies in developing countries. For example, the government might not have the will or interest; the government legislature structure might not have any knowledge of the topic; regulators have no idea about the consequences of zero-rating packages that already exist or don't feel enough appropriate pressure from the civil societies; civil societies or individual activists are not vocal enough in getting their message out; users are happy with what they get because for them Facebook is internet and that is where they get most or all of their online engagement; and finally, developing countries' limited involvement in Internet Governance scenes, whether global or regional IGF or ICANN or any other platform, makes the net neutrality topic much more esoteric than it is in the developed world, resulting in zero-rated mechanisms to be rather appealing since it allows the un-connected citizens to go online.

The "connecting the next billion" phrase also does the unjust of pushing the Net Neutrality issue to the back seat. Internet has historically seen a steady growth over the last two decades. The emphasis on the mere connection to some parts of the internet does not help Net Neutrality debate in developing countries.

However, in the greater picture the zero-rated offerings, even with their appeals for a poor nation like Afghanistan, have social and economic consequences for developing countries. The Facebook or WhatsApp only packages or 'unlimited free access to Facebook only' in a paid internet package, for example, have pushed citizens away from the actual benefits of the internet to a mere communication tool. This approach also limits individuals from producing content in terms of blogs, videos, access to government services and academic researches that is widely available in non-Facebook internet.

Social media has generally affected the domain name and web services business. In Afghanistan bloggers, authors, poets, musicians, politicians, sports celebrities etc. have switched to free Facebook profiles and pages instead of setting up their portfolio on their own website with their own domain name. While other countries have embraced the mobile app business instead, in Afghanistan the zero-rated services (monthly Facebook bundle by Roshan or Internet with free Facebook by MTN) have drained the demand of web and mobile apps for developers.

It appears that we are still struggling in figuring out whether something is better than nothing or if 'nothing' now might get one 'everything' at the end? It is a debate that might satisfy government, regulators and information intermediaries, in countries where net neutrality policies do not exist, however it does not address the root concerns. Net Neutrality and zero-rating are national policy issues and therefore they must be addressed and discussed at the national level. Moreover, our national issues as I have highlighted above are not disconnected from the overall purpose of a platform like the IGF. Indeed, it is gatherings like the IGF that provide the expertise in identifying the challenges and consequences of zero rated mechanisms. It is also a site that triggers these discussions at the local/national level and in Afghanistan. My observations, as highlighted above, is just one beginning.

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