Zero-rating and the silent voices: notes on IGF 2015

23 Nov 2015

By Andrew Puddephatt

Last week was the 10th annual Internet Governance Forum in João Pessoa, Brazil. It’s been a big year for internet governance issues, with the ongoing review of the WSIS+10 process, growing politicisation of cybersecurity, and the recently adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but the dominant theme at the conference was undoubtedly zero-rating networks.

This is perhaps unsurprising. Zero-rating, in particular Facebook’s Free Basics offering, has provoked a vigorous resistance from civil society groups around the world, with many arguing that it risks creating a two-tier internet, divided along North/South lines. It has sparked a lively and welcome debate within the internet community on what ‘access’ means in development terms, broadening its technical or practical dimensions (how do we get the next billion online?) to encompass a more holistic, values-driven definition (what kind of internet will they be experiencing?).

There is no doubt that as civil society we need to carefully consider and debate the potential implications of zero-rating as a principle and means of access. But in this discussion one group has so far been strikingly and disturbingly absent – people who don’t have access to the internet. While the official attendance statistics for this year’s IGF are yet to be published, there were, as usual, a vanishingly small number of people from communities with low internet penetration rates or significant barriers to access. Attendance data from last year shows that 32% of IGF participants came from Western Europe (population 377 million), compared to 8% from Africa (1.2 billion) and 6% from Latin America and the Caribbean (595 million) – crude, top-level statistics which indeed significantly understate the extent of the disproportion, masking huge variations within continents in access and representation (compare Kenya to Swaziland, for example), and the fact that participants who attend are almost invariably from the communities in their countries with high access.

This trend is not unique to access as an issue – indeed, it reflects the broader structural underrepresentation of the global South across all political forums. But there is something particularly problematic about the absence of these voices in this debate, given that arguments against zero-rating typically focus on speculated ‘ways of seeing’ rather than hard data.  For example, a common argument used against zero-rating is that it risks narrowing the perceptive capacity of users, making them unable to imagine an internet beyond Facebook and a few other apps. Recent news stories have claimed, based on limited statistical evidence, that significant proportions of Indonesians and Nigerians even think Facebook is the internet. Because of the lack of reliable data on this issue, and the exclusion of voices from affected communities, the debate is being framed around ideology and assumption. Where else would such woolliness be allowed?

Given the scale of the access challenge, this has to change. But how? To start with, we need to pressure zero-rating service providers to be more transparent and systematic in making data available on reach, uptake and progression onto paid services. We can then take that data and use it to inform an empirical, evidence-led approach to zero-networks – dispassionately analysing their impact through the lens of a broader, positive agenda for better access. We could also push for the inclusion of representatives from low-access communities at internet forums, and undertake research to find out how different communities use zero-rating, and why.

Above all, whatever our ideological standpoint, we need to accept that Facebook isn’t going anywhere. As a recent article in TheWire.in points out, “for Tier-2 city users [in India] who spend less than two hours a day online, over 90% of that time is spent on Facebook; in this case, will the demand for Facebook really fluctuate depending on whether it deploys zero-rating?”

Whether one reads chooses to interpret Free Basics as a sinister privatisation of social democracy, or corporate philanthropy at its best, what we need is an inclusive, evidence-led approach to the access issue which locates zero-networks in a broader ecosystem of related issues. Access is a multi-dimensional challenge which extends far beyond the politics of zero-rating networks and ISPs. It means access to policy forums, access to information, access to data. It is about the having the tools, education and legislative protections to properly realise one’s potential as an online citizen. Making this happen will require more than just Facebook-bashing, however satisfying.