Monday, October 19, 2015

Zero-Rating Is Not A Human Rights Violation

So read the headline for a story in the October 16, 2015, edition of Communications Daily [subscription required].
This one really caught my eye.
The story reported on a panel discussion last week at George Washington University Law School. According to the report, Josh Levy, Access advocacy director, stated zero-rating can lead to human rights violations.
If you have been more concerned with widespread, notorious abuses of human rights around the world such as, for example, beheadings of innocents by religious extremists, jailing of journalists and peaceful protesters by ruthless dictators, harsh subjugation or trafficking of women, or merciless persecution of religious minorities, then perhaps you might not even know what “zero-rating” means.
In short, “zero-rating” refers to certain plans by broadband providers that allow consumers to choose to access selected websites on a free or discounted basis. For example, here in the United States, T-Mobile and Sprint currently offer plans that provide wireless customers access to designated music streaming websites without incurring data charges or access to a limited number of popular websites, such as Facebook or Twitter, at deeply discounted rates.
Or in developing countries in Africa, for example, Facebook offers its now rebranded “Free Basics by Facebook” application that allows consumers – the vast majority of whom previously lacked any access to the Internet at all – to access designated sites, including Facebook, of course, without data charges.
In a January 7, 2015, piece on the Medium website, Professor Susan Crawford, a leading apostle of the most stringent version of net neutrality regulation, called zero-rating plans “pernicious,” “dangerous,” and “malignant.” She acknowledged that while some countries have prohibited the practice, most OECD countries “have some flavor of zero rating in place.”
Perhaps it should not be surprising that, with Professor Crawford calling zero-rating pernicious, dangerous, and malignant, some “experts” at last week’s GWU panel discussion would follow suit. But with all due respect to all concerned, in my view, suggesting that zero-rating may constitute a human rights violation diminishes the cause of human rights. And it diminishes the honor, and in the case of death, the memory, of those who are subjected to, and who endure, real violations of human rights such as those listed above.
To me, a private Internet service provider restricting access to the entire Internet in exchange for free or reduced price service is not denial of a fundamental human right. A government’s denial of a woman’s right to an education simply because she is a woman, or a denial of a man’s right to speak freely without being thrown in jail or shot, well, those are true human rights violations.
I understand that Professor Crawford and those that would call zero-rating a human rights violation assert that all broadband providers should be required to provide access to all subscribers to all websites at all times. Well, if we lived in an ideal world – a world in which all goods and services magically were made available without regard to costs – then I would too. But that is not the real world in which we live.
I’ve written often in the past about why zero-rating plans should not be prohibited, in fact, why they generally are pro-consumer, certainly when consumers have a choice of broadband providers as they do in the U.S. And, of course, it goes without saying that such plans may be most attractive to low-income consumers who otherwise would find Internet access unaffordable or less affordable.
I responded to Professor Crawford in this January 13, 2015, piece entitled, “It’s the Consumer, Stupid – Part III”, which itself contains links to many earlier pieces addressing zero-rated plans.  In the January 2015 piece I wrote: “Professor Crawford’s opposition to any form of ‘zero-rating’ serves to illustrate how, in her view, the absolutist objective of total access uniformity must prevail over any other business model that consumers might find attractive, however slightly such model may diverge from Professor Crawford’s notion of total access uniformity.”
Such ideal-world absolutism with regard to “net neutrality” regulation leads to a zealousness that makes it easy to disregard such real-world matters as the costs of constructing and operating networks, the demand that may (or may not) exists at various price points for different service offerings, the extent of competition and consumer choice available in particular markets, and so forth.
And, more to the point for now, such absolutism makes it easy to inhabit a world in which it is suggested that zero-rating plans may constitute human rights violations, even though, for so many, they may offer a more affordable means to gain Internet access.