The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will apps that don’t burn through your data plan destroy the Internet or save it?

A customer inspects a new Nokia Asha 311 smartphone during a promotional "activation day" event by Nokia Oyj in Maponya Mall in Soweto, South Africa, on Saturday, March 16, 2013. (Photographer: Nadine Hutton/Bloomberg)
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When you're on a data-limited cellphone plan, keeping tabs on how much data you're burning through can be time-consuming. Watching online videos or hopping between Web sites can quickly spend your monthly data allowance. As a result, looming over your enjoyment of your mobile phone is a worry about overages or having your download speeds slowed until your billing cycle mercifully ends.

Tapping into that consumer angst, this summer the service provider T-Mobile began offering its customers an alternative. Under a free feature on some plans, T-Mobile users can now stream music services like Pandora, iTunes Radio, Rhapsody, and Spotify all day long without having to worry about sapping their data caches.

T-Mobile calls it "Music Freedom," and it's part of a quiet but powerful global trend.

Apps and Web sites that don't count against the users' data plan are popping up both in the United States and abroad, often under names like Wikipedia Zero or Facebook Zero. "[W]e hope that even more people will discover the mobile Internet with Facebook," the company blogged in announcing Facebook Zero in 2010.  (The names are a riff on "zero-rated," an economics term for products exempt from taxation.) But set against the ongoing dispute over so-called net neutrality, those apps are beginning to spark a debate about the future of an open, equal, and vibrant Internet in the United States and abroad.

And there is a trade off for consumers. In return for low-cost service, users are, in some cases, being corralled into a limited view of the Internet. Rather than wandering freely from site to site, they have gained gatekeepers who have power over what they see.

But as a pocketbook issue, the upside of the zero-rated Internet is obvious. A growing number of mobile providers are nudging customers toward data-capped plans. According to a report from Allot Communications, while 35 percent of carriers offered unlimited data plans in 2012, now just 15 percent do. That makes zero-rating increasingly attractive to those of us unwilling or unable to pay more for their cell phone service. (In some cases, the cost of the data is absorbed by the app or Web site maker, and in others, by the service provider.)

For example, Sprint’s “Unlimited, My Way” plans start at $50 a month. But for just $12 a month, a Sprint customer can have use limited to either Twitter or Facebook or Pinterest or Instagram; visiting anything online else counts against whatever data plan he or she might buy. The situation is often more dramatic in the developing world, where accessing the full Internet can be cost-prohibitive. In Zimbabwe, Econet Wireless includes free access to a pre-selected group of about 50 websites. Econet also sells a “WhatsApp bundle" for $3 a month. It's a response to the market, says the company: people using the popular messaging app reportedly accounts for nearly a quarter of the company's Internet traffic.

It sets up a tricky dynamic. Consumers are understandably reluctant to pay for data if they don't have to, and reining in these services could mean eliminating the only chance some people have to go online. But some are fretting that zero-rated apps are a quick fix for a much gnarlier problem.

"Although it may seem like a humane strategy to offer users from developing countries crumbs from the Internet's table in the form of free access to walled-garden services," Jeremy Malcolm, senior global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation has written, "such service may thrive at the cost of stifling the development of low-cost, neutral Internet access in those countries for decades to come."

What's the worry? A chief one is that by making some apps exempt from data caps, users will be discouraged from trying out other data-consuming alternatives. And that, in turn, will upset the Internet's competitive free-for-all; one tech world venture capitalist has compared it like if just a single brand of refrigerator didn't rack up electricity charges. Another concern is that such services lock users into only a single online experience. That’s a troublesome norm to establish, say some, in places in the world where many people are still yet to go online for the first time.

That future is already here in places.

“The Internet in Myanmar is Facebook,” says Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, of the country he visited this winter. Only about one percent of Burma is online, but the country is trending toward connectivity: mobile subscriptions climbed from 12,000 in 2000 to nearly 7 million in 2013. The tension, says Zuckerman, is that while some zero-rated apps like one created by Wikipedia have the potential to broaden users' access to information, when those users can only reach the Web through Facebook it could limit that exposure. "The future in which Facebook is the Internet of the developing world looks really scary," he says, "and zero-rating is probably the easiest way for Facebook to get there."

As officials from the Federal Communications Commission traveled the United States in recent months to discuss the rules it will soon issue on net neutrality, the zero-rated question repeatedly came up. Internet advocacy groups argued that the practice could violate bans on paying to prioritize some sources of Internet traffic. Meanwhile, the phone maker Ericsson has told the FCC that, "Treating data as 'toll-free' in the context of the broadband Internet access world should be no different than a toll-free call in the voice telephony world," adding, "It is hard to argue—although some have—that zero-rated data is somehow a bad idea."

Battle line are now being drawn. The Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organization that hosts the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, caused a stir at the beginning of August when an official there said that its Wikipedia Zero service, now available in 29 countries but not in the United States, can peacefully co-exist with the spirit of net neutrality, mostly because no money changes hands. “It is absolutely in the interest of the public,” wrote Erik Möller, deputy director for the non-profit that runs the online encyclopedia, “to use the Internet to provide free access to education, knowledge, medical information, or other public services.”

Raegan MacDonald, European policy manager for the digital rights group Access, shot back that she was “shocked” by that position. Wikipedia Zero is, she blogged, “is an attack on the future of the open internet.”

And Fred Wilson, a high-profile venture capitalist based in New York who works with many Internet-based companies, warned his blog earlier this summer, “What all of this zero rating activity is setting up is a mobile Internet that looks a lot more like cable TV than our wide open Internet. Soon a 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.”

But some on-the-ground experts say that such a critique about "zero-rated" apps are, though well-meaning, misguided. Stephen Song is the founder of Village Telco, an enterprise that provides voice-over-Internet technologies in South Africa and elsewhere. He suggests that some in the U.S. might be guilty of exporting assumptions about how the Internet should work in a way that “verges on paternalistic” -- and that ignores that an an 'open Internet' is one that people can access. And exorbitant data costs, he says, are often what's keeping people from experimenting online.

And as for worries about locking users into one way of accessing the Internet, Song points out that the United States of the 1990s, 'going online' meant joining up with closed-universe Internet services like AOL and CompuServe. But that most of us in the United States have moved onto Internet services that allow us to roam the Internet far and wide. “To assume that people in emerging markets won’t come to the same conclusion,” said Song, “is selling them a bit short.”

Asked about zero-rating last week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said, "You will be able to see a response to that kind of question in the rule," or the regulations on Internet openness the commission is expected to issue by the end of the year.

Yet even if American telecom regulators settle the zero-rating matter in the U.S., the debate will carry on elsewhere. And how people learn to use the mobile Internet in Zimbabwe, Burma, and beyond will do much to determine what the future of the online world looks like from here on out.