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Toward freer lands on the Internet

21/05/2015
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Zero rating is a practice widely criticized for entering into conflict with the net neutrality principle, which is part of the guarantees to maintain a free and open Internet. Overall, the offers are intended to increase the number of Internet users, with promotions that appeal to a very specific market segment: one that does not have much experience with technology and therefore, knows only the most popular services and uses them to interact in “social media” at the lowest possible cost.

 

In practice, when access to the Internet on equal terms to all is not guaranteed, problems begin to appear such as the creation of “walled gardens” or virtual spaces where companies have control over applications or content available and the ability to restrict them. The “walled gardens” make it impossible for users to access all available information, creating a bias in their ability to make decisions.

 

Competition problems also arise. If someone makes decisions about which programs, applications and/or resources are available, many others fall outside, including direct competitors and new proposals that have no way to reach potential users.

 

A third problem is the cultural involvement. In the past 30 years, a number of cultures around the net have emerged, which have fought to keep it free and open. An example is the hacker culture that is based on the principles of the hacker ethic: a set of values, which include the free access to knowledge and accessibility. The work of these communities is at the core of the Internet and all large companies who thrive in this ecosystem. Without free internet access, this cycle runs the risk of being torn to pieces and, instead of curious and active individuals able to innovate, we will see more and more passive consumers that do not distinguish between Facebook and the Internet.

 

One of the first countries for which we have information on the impact of zero rating is Paraguay, where Tigo, in partnership with Facebook, offers a free Facebook plan since a year ago. In February 2014, Mark Zuckerberg spoke about this cooperation at the Mobile World Congress 2014 in Barcelona: “In Paraguay, we are working with Tigo, and they have also seen that the number of people using data plans grew by 50% during the time of the association.”

 

In 2015, the iconic case for the region is Colombia, where Facebook, in partnership with the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and, again, through an agreement with Tigo, established the first implementation in the region of the Internet.org program. According to the information on its website, Internet.org is a Facebook-driven initiative that “brings together technology leaders, nonprofit organizations and local communities to connect two thirds of the world’s population that lack access to Internet.”

 

In Colombia, Internet.org offers free access to 16 websites: 1doc3, 24 Symbols, AccuWeather, Agronet, BabyCenter & MAMA, Facebook, Girl Effect, Instituto Colombiano para la Evaluación de la Educación, Messenger, Mitula, Para la Vida, Su Dinero, Tambero.com, UNICEF, Wikipedia and YoAprendo. The creator of Facebook attended the project launch. Although this program only provides access to a few applications, the government’s press releases and mass media announced this initiative as one that seeks to provide access to Internet.

 

Weeks later, at the Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona, Zuckerberg stated: “50 percent of data users in Colombia have benefited from Internet.org.” There is no official figures that allow us to test this statement. If so, it would mean that half of data users in Colombia are not accessing the Internet, but a limited and blurred version of the web through Internet.org.

 

We do not know which countries in the region will host Internet.org as part of state policy. However, in September 2014, Zuckerberg was negotiating with the government of Mexico, but an official announcement has not been made yet. However, in March this year, it was said that in 2015 two new countries in Latin America will launch Internet.org.

 

What does exist is a proliferation of schemes and offers that include free access to some services. In Peru, Claro is offering free WhatsApp. In Mexico, Telcel had a free WhatsApp promotion from August to December 2014 and it’s now Movistar that offers a plan that distinguishes the access to social networks (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp) and mail from the Internet. In Paraguay, Tigo keeps promoting Facebook and WhatsApp for free. In Colombia, in addition to Internet.org, operators also offer WhatsApp for free.

 

As already stated, these plans, developments and implementations based on “zero rating” practices generate clash with net neutrality. Therefore, for advocates of these models, the development of regulations and policies around the web could represent an obstacle.

 

In the region, Chile is the only country that has spoken out loud and clear on the subject. The Department of Telecommunications warned telecommunications companies, in their interpretation of the neutrality law, that those commercial offers that ensure the free use of specific social networking applications (or others) such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, were highly discriminatory as they benefit a specific application to the detriment of their competitive nature. So, the only way the Chilean operators can offer “zero rating” plans is if the gratuity applies to all offers of the same class of content. This would mean that if an operator in Chile wants to offer free WhatsApp, it also must offer Telegram, Line, Viper and any other applications.

 

Other countries have not yet spoken. In Colombia, net neutrality as defined supports market segmentation.  In the interpretation made by the controlling body –the Regulatory Commission of Communications–, operators can offer plans provided that they make an alternative or rate plan available to their users, that does not require any limitation regarding services, content or applications that the user can access.  An interpretation of net neutrality quite different from the one in Chile.  As a result, in Colombia, we find free “WhatsApp” or “Internet.org,” or economic tariff plans for “chat” or “social networks,” where the operator defined which services are included.

 

In Brazil, the regulation of the Marco Civil de Internet (Internet Civil Code) is as yet under discussion. It is expected that the issue of zero rating will become part of the debate on net neutrality.

 

While discussions and determinations of the countries take shape and international discussions on the subject are kept in the various related Internet forums, protests coming from the same Internet users are not left behind. We have heard some voices in the region disagreeing with zero rating.

 

In Colombia, Carolina Botero, from the Karisma Foundation, said: “Internet.org is not Internet.”  In the Mexican case, the issue of market segmentation was seen with concern, when net neutrality was discussed as part of the reform of the Telecom Act. There are doubts in Brazil about the appropriateness of such implementations. In this sense, they warn about the creation of “caste” on the Internet and what it means in terms of ruptures facing a process of digital inclusion.

 

In my view, one of the most curious reactions is the Paraguayan. In the absence of a legal framework that limits this, the response has been technological. A Paraguayan developer, exploiting vulnerability in Facebook’s chat application, has created a program that establishes a tunnel from Facebook allowing users to browse the entire Internet. In the words of the developer: “We all know that the Internet is about accessing many places, etc. So I feel this campaign [internet.org] as a serious limitation.” That is, in the spirit of those who created the web, the developer shows a practical solution to ensure that Internet.org does not restrict access to Internet.

 

Basically, we know that the goal of companies led by Facebook with Internet.org, is not altruistic. Zuckerberg made it pretty clear this year in Barcelona when he said: “In the end, we want to make more money and connect more people in the process.” It may backfire for them. And, following the Paraguayan path, connecting more people could allow those most in need to get out of the “walled garden” created by Internet.org and “zero rating” toward freer lands on the Internet.

(Translated by Amelia Toledo.)

 

 

María del Pilar Sáenz, physicist by profession, activist by vocation.  Enthusiast of free software, open technologies and free culture. Works with the Karisma Foundation and is part of Hackbo and RedPaTodos. @mapisaro

 

Article first published in Digital Rights – Latin America and the Caribbean: http://www.digitalrightslac.net/en/hacia-tierras-mas-libres-en-internet/

Also in: Latin America in Movement 503, ALAI, April 2015.  “Towards a people’s Internet” http://www.alainet.org/en/revistas/169787

 

 

http://www.alainet.org/en/articulo/169792

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