Wikipedia Zero balances net neutrality, universal access

One of Wikipedia’s chief goals is giving the world free access to as much knowledge as possible. Through their Wikipedia Zero program, they’ve worked in developing regions to deliver free access to people who would otherwise go without it.

However, this free access could have the appearance of violating net neutrality principles. This is because under the programs in which needy people get access to Wikipedia, Wikipedia is treated differently than other websites by the mobile carrier or Internet service provider (ISP).

Wikipedia Zero is an initiative by the Wikimedia Foundation to give unlimited access to Wikipedia to people who otherwise could not. In a blog post, Wikipedia recalls people in a remote part of South Africa starting a petition to convince cellular providers to allow access to Wikipedia free of charge.

In response to efforts like that, Wikipedia Zero launched. Their estimate is that 350 million people in 29 countries access Wikipedia free of charge through the program, which is offered in conjunction with mobile carriers.

A map of the countries with Wikipedia Zero. From CSchloeder (WMF)

With cooperation from mobile operators, people with cell phone plans of various kinds have “zero-rate” access to Wikipedia, meaning they can browse as much as they want without running up their data allowance.

This is a great humanitarian benefit – Wikipedia is often an essential resource for people to learn, both as part of formal education and lifelong learning.

However, this can seem like a violation of the principles of net neutrality. In the ideal of net neutrality, all Internet providers treat traffic from any source equally. No website or service is blocked, sped up, slowed down, or charged at a different rate. This keeps providers out of the game of censorship, whether transparently (blocking traffic) or subtly (throttling speeds, giving different rates to preferred services).

Well, free Wikipedia and paid data from everywhere else sounds like a non-neutral Internet. Wikipedia realizes that, too. Among other things, they say this:

The Wikimedia Foundation believes that the principle of net neutrality is critical to the future of the open Internet. In order for information to be available to all, Internet Service Providers must not create different classes of service for different types of content to serve their commercial interests. This is consistent with the principles upon which the Internet was founded: equal delivery of data, regardless of source.

Noting how waiving the fees for certain services can be perceived as a non-neutral proposal, Wikipedia says, “advocates for an open and free Internet have raised important questions about how sponsored access to certain services affects innovation by favoring incumbents with the ability to pay for preferential access to users.”

With that in mind, they set out to outline some ways to distinguish their humanitarian mission from more nefarious schemes to game the system, like the “fast lanes” proposal in the USA that allows ISPs to charge more to web services like Netflix for priority speeds.

Among the ways they believe Wikipedia Zero is a good-faith effort are:

  • Internet providers are not paid, by anyone, to offer this zero-rated access to Wikipedia
  • Wikipedia Zero cannot be sold as part of a bundle; it has to be a standard offering
  • No carrier exclusives; any cellular carrier can participate in any market
  • Willingness to include other non-profit, public interest services in their initiatives

It’s a tricky position to be in. By emphasizing both the obvious public good humanity receives when people can access Wikipedia and the measures taken to ensure that nobody has a strong commercial interest, it’s a compelling argument that net neutrality is not being threatened in a serious way by Wikipedia Zero.

Unfortunately, chances are that people on the other side of the debate will use this to argue against net neutrality. By explaining things this way, though, Wikipedia has given net neutrality proponents plenty of ammunition to argue back.

Featured image by Omaranabulsi via Wikimedia Commons