Do we want a neutral or sponsored internet?

Anne Mari Ronquillo
Do we want a neutral or sponsored internet?
Does 'free data' uphold the principles of a free and open Internet? Net neutrality supporters do not think so.

While waiting for the nationwide rollout of “Free Public WiFi,” many Filipino smartphone users get by with freebies from their service providers. Partnerships between apps and mobile operators have launched a barrage of promotions that highlight free or discounted use of specific apps and their content.

“Free” is a hot keyword that has not lost its power in the Filipino culture and it’s the norm to prefer content that doesn’t usher us fast towards our subscriber data caps.

In early 2016, India banned the use of zero-rated mobile services. Zero-rating is a business strategy by service providers that have them offering lower or no charges for usage and download of specific apps or content.

Content providers like Spotify and Netflix that can afford to pay mobile operators can sponsor a subscriber’s consumption of their apps and services, while those that can’t will continue to eat up a user’s data allowance.

While zero-rating is common business practice, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has taken a firm stand against zero-rating, as the country has taken strides to uphold net neutrality in the last few years. Net neutrality prevents service providers from speeding up, slowing down, or completely blocking content, provided that content is lawful.

But what could be so bad about free access to Facebook, Twitter, or even a generous 3-month free subscription to Spotify Premium?

Sponsored ‘free data’ has been criticized by proponents of net neutrality as it is believed to against the tenets of an open Internet. Smaller apps and content providers are disadvantaged by their inability to sponsor a subscriber’s data usage. Meanwhile, established and moneyed companies continue to build massive user bases from sponsored subscribers flocking to their apps and content.

This skewed market then narrows the user experience down to a few select apps, while a sea of alternatives are underutilized for the simple reason that they cannot be accessed for free.  

There’s also the general belief that this gives mobile operators all the power because aside from receiving money from both sponsors and subscribers, they get to choose their partners, thereby also choosing what apps to promote and what content to distribute. The mobile operators end up dictating what people consume. It’s called “economic discrimination,” said internet founder Tim Berners-Lee.  

Lee had encouraged the European Parliament to look at the implications of zero-rating prior to a 2015 EU initial ruling on net neutrality.

“The current proposal permits internet service providers (ISPs) to exempt applications from users’ monthly bandwidth cap (“zero-rating”). Economic discrimination is just as harmful as technical discrimination, so ISPs will still be able to pick winners and losers online,” he states in a blog post.

The 2015 ruling had minimized roaming charges in the EU, which gave Europeans more freedom to make calls and access their usual apps while traveling to countries within the Union. But the Parliament hadn’t decided on the implications of allowing zero-rating.

Net Neutrality in the Philippines

The debates surrounding net neutrality have yet to enter the Philippine mainstream, but for the past decade, lawmakers have taken steps to establish policies that protect Internet freedom.

It was the late Miriam Santiago who spearheaded the passing of the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom, as a response to the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

The Cybercrime Law has been previously criticized for threatening freedom of expression, which is a constitutional right enjoyed by average citizens and propagandists alike.

The latest version of the Internet Freedom bill (SNB-1051) was passed by Senator Bam Aquino in August 2016. It has specific provisions on net neutrality. If the law passes, service providers will not be able to block access to content that is not deemed unlawful in the Philippines.

In a country where data plans are expensive and connection speeds are abysmal, Facebook’s “Free Basics” are heaven-sent. But this makes it unlikely that the average “free data” user would look for content outside of Facebook. The Internet is teeming with news sources, but why pay for “premium” plans when overall broadband provisions are poor?

What Net Neutrality protects

Access to the Internet is now recognized as a human right and net neutrality policies allow the free flow of content, without ISPs blocking or slowing down access to websites on arbitrary bases.  

In the United States, net neutrality debates have been largely about the attempted mergers of media companies and ISPs. Cable and Internet service provider, Comcast, attempted to merge with Time Warner Cable in 2014. This move was heavily criticized for its anti-competitive and monopolistic nature as smaller independent players will have a harder time entering the market.

The merger did not happen, but big service providers are still intent on conglomeration, which gives them more control on what content is fed to users, as well as pricing. Consumers pay ISPs for the bandwidth to access whatever content they want.

By net neutrality principles, content prioritization and promotion at the discretion of the ISP, whether they were sponsored or not, are violations.

With threats of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Trump administration rolling back net neutrality, some Americans are worried they may start getting filtered content through their screens.

Net neutrality fosters a competitive and innovative market for developers and content providers. Moreover, it protects free expression provided that content and services remain lawful. By letting service providers become curators by way of promotions and partnerships, we are risking viewing the Internet through a filtered, sponsored lens. –

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