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Strengthening the Internet 4 April 2024

When “Free” Comes With Strings Attached

By Sebastián SchonfeldSenior Communications and Advocacy Advisor

“Free streaming subscription with mobile plan!”
“Data-free music streaming!”
”Use these top 3 social apps without using up your data!”

These are just a few examples of the types of promotions you’ll see coming from telecommunications providers around the world to entice people into selecting their service. Users are keen to find the deal that best fits their needs when picking a new mobile service provider, and you can find hundreds of online reviews about different deals on specialized portals as well as in newspapers. What may be offered as simple cost savings and ways to get around data limits for people, are actually tactics to steer Internet usage to specific apps and services. And this practice ultimately harms the open and globally connected Internet.

When Free Isn’t Actually Free

If you live in the Western world, would you believe me if I said that the person sitting next to you on the train or walking by your side on the street might be having a completely different Internet experience than the one you are having?

Well, as far-fetched as I could sound, this is true and common. There are many reasons for this, but one is related to the promotional practices we outlined before, so let’s start talking about something called “zero-rated services.”

This means that when users access specific apps or services, their data usage for that content is not counted against their data plan. This is usually framed as “user benefits” and part of a mobile provider’s commercial platform. While it can seem to offer cost savings and improved accessibility, zero-rating services often result from commercial alliances between big service providers and big content providers and raise concerns about net neutrality—in simpler terms: people’s ability to find things on the Internet, because all data is treated equally and nothing is “prioritized” by your connectivity provider—and competition.

But let’s also consider the cultural impact of such measures: they provide the potential for providers to influence the content users access, molding their preferences and opinions: only use one messaging service, one social network, one news provider, and so on. They create new Internet gatekeepers with the power to shape our tastes and preferences, influence where and when we spend our money, our political views, and how we want to spend our free time. They could become the managers of the walled garden that you are offered access to on the Internet.

The Negative Impact of Zero-rating Services

Zero-rating services are a reality worldwide and are common in practically all mobile service plans offered in any country. But the negative impact of these practices is much more significant on the working class and marginalized communities that have smaller data plans and depend on zero-rated services daily. Often, these groups can’t choose to use a different service because they don’t have available data to do so.

Free benefits or perks that come with your connectivity plan can seem attractive and have considerable weight when deciding which to subscribe to, especially if you’re “strapped for cash,” but zero-rating services affect net neutrality since traffic is treated differently. They foster market consolidation by players already dominating the scene and undermine the principles of an open, globally connected Internet. But mainly, and perhaps most importantly, they have the worst impact on the people who need the Internet and could benefit most from the opportunities it provides.

At the Internet Society, we believe in the open, secure, trustworthy, globally connected, and unified Internet. The Internet we know and love. The Internet that brought us this far. The one that is an engine of change, a place of opportunity, development, and personal fulfillment for people worldwide. No matter who they are, where they live, or how much they have in their pockets.

Image © Hugh Han on Unsplash

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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