Imagine if the Internet had only 10 websites. Or just one. Is that a Web we want or value?
We’ve grown accustomed to the Web as a sprawling and open place. It’s a public resource that creates economic opportunity and celebrates diversity of opinion. But this open Web — the one many of us first experienced on our desktops — is in danger. As more people migrate to smartphones, they’re discovering a closed Web. The mobile Web is too often a series of walled gardens, closed platforms, and apps that limit creativity. This Web renders users as only consumers, not creators, and can threaten the basic tenets of net neutrality.
It’s estimated that in the next 10 years, two billion more individuals will come online for the first time, most exclusively through their smartphones. It’s a heartening statistic: we’ve come far in our quest to connect the unconnected. But while access is a noble goal, it’s only half the equation. We have to ask ourselves: what are these new users connecting to? A rich, open, and diverse Web — or just a handful of websites and apps? If new users in India, Bangladesh, and other emerging economies connect to a Web that allows for only limited and passive use, we risk jeopardizing the world’s most valuable public resource.
Indeed, we’re already seeing reason for alarm: earlier this year, Quartz reported that millions of Facebook users aren’t even aware they’re on the Internet. Frequently, mobile users believe a single app or social media platform is the extent of access. As a result, these platforms possess monopolies of the imagination — the ability to shape and control users’ perception of the Web. People end up viewing the Web less as a life-changing resource, and more like a television.
It’s a perception our own field research confirms. When the Mozilla Foundation carried out research in Bangladesh earlier this year, our team spoke with young adults around the city of Chittagong. Many of them found social media and the Web indistinguishable.
“Do you go on the Internet?” we asked.
“No, I don’t have my Facebook account yet,” one interviewee responded.
“Sorry, I did not mean Facebook. Have you ever been on a website?” we replied.
“Not yet. I will make my Facebook account next week.”
The conflation of the Web with select websites and apps is partly sustained by zero-rating, the practice of subsidizing data used to visit specific destinations on the Web. Zero-rating provides an affordable access pathway for mobile Web users — but where does that pathway lead? Often to a small corner of the Web. While zero-rating doesn’t raise the same prototypical harms of net neutrality violations, namely throttling and blocking, the practice raises many of the same anti-innovation and anti-competition concerns.
The most noteworthy zero-rating initiative is Internet.org (recently repositioned as “Free Basics”), a collaboration between Facebook and several telecommunications companies. True, Internet.org is increasingly welcoming more Web destinations into its fold. But it still plays the part of gatekeeper, funneling users to a small corner of the Web. And there are other, similar initiatives: mCent by Jana; Gigato; DataMi. In some cases, these initiatives subsidize app usage — a particularly troubling prospect. Apps live outside of the open Web, acting as walled gardens that further limit users’ imagination and freedom of exploration.
Simply lamenting the rise of a closed mobile Web won’t reverse the trend. If we want to empower billions of Web users and defend openness, we need to pursue two key solutions: equal-rating and web literacy education.
Zero-rating is just one business model, and we shouldn’t accept it as inevitable. At Mozilla, we believe there are better solutions. One option is equal-rating, a service that provides free or low-cost access to the entire Internet for people around the world who otherwise can’t afford it. Equal-rating users would see the same open and free Internet as anyone paying full price. It’s a concept Mozilla and telecom provider Orange have explored with the Klif, a $40 smartphone available in Africa and the Middle East that comes bundled with 500MB of 3G data for three to six months. There’s also the Grameenphone model in Bangladesh, where users can unlock 20MB of unrestricted data each day by viewing a short ad in the phone’s marketplace. When we subsidize the whole Internet, and not just corners of it, we’re not limiting users’ ability to fully explore the Web. And, potentially, we’re not limiting their imaginations.
Subsidies alone won’t open up the mobile Web; we also need education. Mobile providers, governments and NGOs must teach web literacy, the skills needed to meaningfully participate online. Mozilla recently concluded 12 weeks of research in Bangladesh alongside the GSMA, which represents mobile operators worldwide. Our findings, captured in a soon-to-be-released report, spotlight just how powerful web literacy is. In one workshop, a first group of participants received basic web literacy training: they learned about device basics, the difference between apps and browsers, and online identity and privacy. A second group of participants received no training. The results? After four weeks, the first group logged 17 percent higher Web usage and expressed increased ability and a greater desire to become content producers. We learned that web literate individuals are more confident, more imaginative, more inspired. They want a read-write Web, not a carefully manicured set of services. Users like this are less likely to stand idle as the mobile Web shrinks.
There’s good news: we’re already seeing positive progress on both fronts. Products and initiatives such as the Orange Klif and Grameenphone highlight the possibilities of equal-rating, and connect users to a truly open mobile Web. And organizations and tools such as Code.org, MIT Scratch and Mozilla’s own Webmaker for Android are teaching web literacy around the world and transforming Web users into Web creators. But this is just the start — we need to ramp up the momentum. We need a collection of companies, campaigns and curricula that genuinely invest in the right kind of access, in education, in openness and imagination. We need more players to join this crusade, or we won’t see the open Web people want.
Mark Surman is executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, a global community dedicated to keeping the Web open and free. Follow him on Twitter.