Net neutrality versus social justice: the case for zero rating

zeroCould one argue against net neutrality in order to support poor people?  This seems to be what Wikipedia is urging, and offers all of us an unusual spin on the net neutrality question.

The key to this approach is that it isn’t about fast lanes, but something called zero rating.

See, the usual net neutrality debate focuses on ISPs wanting to charge users more for extra-large and/or extra-demanded traffic: fast lanes for Netflix, for example.  (There’s also the political angle of charging more for certain content, but set that aside for now) ISPs claim certain rich media content is enormously costly for them to support, and that it makes business sense to pass those costs back to the demanding consumer.  The EFF (whom I support) argues that this goes against the internet’s foundational principles, and makes ISPs unjust arbiters of user experience, worsening the internet for nearly everyone.

Zero rating goes in the opposite direction.  It’s the principle by which ISPs, especially mobile service providers, charge less, actually nothing (hence the name), for certain types of internet service and content.  For example, a user might pay subscription rates for everything except Facebook or Google.  ISPs benefit by attracting new subscribers; poor users benefit by getting access to some of the internet they would otherwise not be able to see.

Wikimedia foundation logoThis is where Wikipedia comes in.  Their mission is to create and spread that encyclopedia’s knowledge as far as possible.  Read that carefully balanced, very nuanced linked article, and you’ll see them trying to balance net neutrality, information access, and a service mission of helping the world’s poor.  They still want net neutrality, and think they can have it alongside zero rating.

Where does education come into this? Here are some initial thoughts.

One vital connection is the extent to which we see education as a social good, dedicated to universal access and improving the lives of everyone.  This is the old concept animating many service-oriented educational missions, such as community colleges, Catholic schools, and 20th-century left-wing pedagogy.  We’ve see it most recently in Thomas Piketty’s vision of education as the most potent force for mitigating economic inequality.  If educators believe this to be a powerful guiding principle for their work, then zero rating must appeal. It clearly expands access to certain parts of the internet to populations otherwise blocked.

Perhaps educators can consider zero rating as akin to educational tv programming, or other mandated public goods. Indeed, for older educators steeped in decades of television culture, zero-rating’s tv-like approach might be congenial.  That approach circumvents the marketplace and also goes around the education sphere.  Maybe educators will support zero rating specifically for accessing educational content: Wikipedia, Google Scholar, Project Gutenberg, Creative Commons search engines, .edu domain websites, etc.  Would we ask for zero rating to apply to learning management systems?

Moreover, zero rating is primarily a feature of mobile ISPs.  We know that nonwhites and poor people in the US tend to use mobile phones more than whites and wealthier people.  I’ve argued for a long time that if educators are serious about outreach, we need to make the shift to mobile.  And that’s been happening, although far more slowly and incompletely than I would have preferred.

Adopting zero rating as a educational good contradicts net neutrality, which places the .edu world in a tricky position.  Either we end up opposing net neutrality, or have to argue that NN gives social benefits greater than those conferred by zero rating.  i.e., an open, no-special-lanes internet supports a better learning environment than does a multi-tiered architecture.

Consider the anecdote with which that Wikipedia post/article opens:

In November 2012, a group of students at Sinenjongo High School in Joe Slovo Park, a poor South African township, launched a petition to South African cell phone providers to provide access to Wikipedia free of charge. The students used Wikipedia for homework and research, but the data charges were almost prohibitive. In February 2014, MTN South Africa responded, making Wikipedia free for their subscribers. This was done under the umbrella of a Wikimedia Foundation program known as Wikipedia Zero.

That kind of story is pretty compelling.  Imagine applying it to American situations and populations.

Or not.  To some extent American education is not predicated on social justice.  The ranking system for higher education (check Wildawsky for an excellent account) is based on exclusion, not inclusion.  College and university finances are increasingly directed at service well-prepared students, who are in turn increasingly the scions of privilege.  We reach eagerly for students from East Asia, who ditto.  This education model would have no use for zero rating.

The research mission of education adds another level of complexity to our consideration.  We often assess a university’s quality by its research production, not so much its teaching.  In this case pedagogical outreach isn’t vital, and perhaps leads us to return to net neutrality in order to assure researchers of the best possible access to the scholarly world.

…unless zero rating boosts universal access to scholarly publications; is there a case for this?

There are other possibilities.  I can imagine net neutrality ending with ISPs offering tiers of differential speed levels for pay alongside a zero rating.  Possibly the latter serves as PR cover for the former.  I can also see education not getting involved, due to the complexity, sheer nerdishness, and political pitfalls of the topic.

Will any other education-related entity join the Wikimedia Foundation in its support for zero rating, and hedging net neutrality?

If you’re interested in zero rating and Wikipedia, this Hacker News thread offers a pretty rich discussion.

 (photo by Tim Green; thanks to Jesse Walker for correction)

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