The Hidden Costs of Free Internet


Early this year, the Federal Communications Commission voted to prevent Internet service providers – including Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner, and more – from blocking, throttling, and prioritizing, websites and services. Considered a watershed moment for open-internet activists, the vote marked a victory for what is called “Network Neutrality.” Those in support of an open-internet, where all bits and bytes of information are treated equally, argue that having an Internet with a leveled playing field has helped foster an environment for innovation, bringing about the services we use and rely upon daily. Social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, succeeded in replacing MySpace and Friendster not only because they provided a better experience, but because they were also equally accessible. While the previous battle for network neutrality was fought over the right of Internet services providers to dictate the speed and prioritization of certain apps and sites, the next debate will be over how customers pay to access these sites. The practice is called zero-rating, and it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

More and more people use their smartphones as the primary way to access their favorite websites and applications, or apps. These smartphones typically require a data plan to access the essential services – be it accessing documents, streaming music, getting directions, or connecting with friends and family, all of these activities require a data connection or plan. Particularly in the United States, most cellphone carriers have dropped unlimited data plans and have implemented data caps, charging by the amount of data or gigabytes used by the customers. A practice called zero-rating allows companies such as Facebook to broker a deal with carriers, like AT&T or Verizon, where using their app or service wouldn’t count against the gigabytes of data that the customer paid for that month. It sounds like a great deal for consumers, but it runs the risk of creating additional hurdles for competitors to innovate, providing access to the Internet unequally, and create a mindset that providing a free service is sustainable. Zero-rating is even more prevalent in developing markets in Asia and Africa where social media companies are creating a de-facto Internet for the poor. The vendetta then follows – Internet access is an increasingly necessary tool in the modern era, especially for people in developing countries. The practice of zero-rating Internet services potentially increases accessibility for the economically disadvantaged, but comes at the cost of suspending core principles of network neutrality by providing unequal access to the closed ecosystems of Facebook and Google. 

Zero-rating is a relatively new business model and its long term benefits and harms are not definitive, however new initiatives in developing markets such Indonesia and Nigeria are starting to cause concern in open-internet advocacy communities. Companies and organizations such as Facebook, Wikipedia, and Google, have begun partnering with local carriers in these countries to provide services that don’t eat into customers’ relatively expensive data caps, arguing they are providing access to services they couldn’t otherwise afford. 

One of the more outspoken proponents of zero-rating is Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of Facebook. Zuckerberg has a personal dog in the fight, having introduced to development markets and allowing people to use Facebook, and other bundled services within, to communicate with others and read news within their app ecosystem, all without making a dent in a consumer’s data allotment. Zuckerberg defended his position stating “[a]rguments about net neutrality shouldn’t be used to prevent the most disadvantaged people in society from gaining access” to Facebook. [ref] Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook post, April 6, 2015, [/ref] In the United States and most other countries, Facebook carries the roughly same cost of data as any other social media site, leaving the decision to the customer as to which is more valuable to them. Zuckerberg argues “it is always better to have some access than none at all” and that the two principles of universal connectivity and network neutrality, “can and must coexist.” In countries where is marketed, consumers are more inclined to gravitate toward Facebook’s offering since it carries a smaller upfront cost. The hidden cost, however, is that Facebook is not the entirety of the Internet. 

Opponents to zero-rating understand the value of universal connectivity, but express that it cannot live harmoniously with network neutrality as it violates some of its core principles, arguing “giving away some services puts those services that aren’t available on the app at a disadvantage,” creating an uneven playing field.[ref] Issie Lapowsky, “Mark Zuckerberg Can’t Have It Both Ways on Net Neutrality,” Wired, accessed June 10, 2015.  [/ref] Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson claims the zero-rating practices instills a mindset that Internet access will always be free, and creates a behavior that is difficult to overcome, stating “startup will have to negotiate a zero rating plan before launching because mobile app customers will be trained to only use apps that are zero rated on their network.” [ref] Ibid. [/ref] And while it might put access to some Internet services into the hands of those with tighter budgets, it creates “an Internet for poor people,” defeating the purpose of universal connectivity.[ref] Mat Honan, “Facebook-Backed Nonprofit Brings Free Internet to Zambia,” Wired, accessed June 10, 2015,[/ref] Furthermore, the prevalence of Facebook’s has caused the population of Indonesia and Nigeria to confuse Facebook for the Internet. [ref] Leo Mirani, “Millions of Facebook Users Have No Idea They’re Using the Internet,” Quartz, accessed June 10, 2015,[/ref] This has lead John Naughton of the Guardian to argue “[t]he goal of public policy everywhere should be to increase access to the internet—the whole goddam internet, not some corporate-controlled alcove.” [ref] John Naughton, “If the Price of Giving Everyone Internet Access Is Total Domination by Facebook, It’s Not worth It, The Guardian, accessed June 10, 2015. [/ref] 

Mitchell Baker, chairperson to Mozilla, the free-software community, presents alternatives to zero-rating in developing countries, which she calls equal rating or zero-rating for all. [ref] “Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker Offers Alternatives to Zero-rating for Internet Services,” MediaNama, May 7, 2015, accessed June 10, 2015, [/ref] These alternatives offer full-access to the entire Internet, not just the enclaves of Facebook and Google, at a subsidized cost to a customer’s data plan by having companies front the bill in exchange for “brought to you by” attribution or advertisements. The alternative Baker proposes would involve Internet users viewing advertisements to receive unrestricted data allowance and add it to their monthly data cap through their Internet provider. Baker argues the difference is that the people get the entire Internet and get to choose which services they want to spend their data. 

The goal of establishing and maintaining a globally connected society is a noble one, indeed. However, the world cannot be interconnected when subsets of the population are locked into an “Internet” developed by companies whose revenue is dependent upon having active users. The Internet became place of unprecedented innovation due to its equal and open access. Zero-rating presents itself as the next step to connecting more people, but it runs the risk of creating a separate and unequal web.

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Brian Chernick is a Policy Corner (PC) writer devoted to challenging ideas and seeking outlets for expression, collaboration and debate on political topics through civil and mutually beneficial discourse. He graduated from California State University, Los Angeles, with a B.A in Psychology, Pre-Law and a Minor in Philosophy. As a PC writer, he seeks to steer Public Policy by using reason and intellect backed by thorough research. Network Neutrality, Immigration, the Environment, Technology and civil rights are some issues that fuel his passion. Brian also currently hosts News Beat on KCHUNG Radio and is the former co-host of Clear Oversight. To find out more about him, visit