CIMA releases Report on the Implications of ‘Free Internet’ for Media Pluralism

Mark Nelson, Senior Director, CIMA
Mark Nelson, Senior Director, CIMA

The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), has issued a new report titled: “Free Internet” and the Costs to Media Pluralism: The Hazards of Zero-Rating the News”. Written by Daniel O’Maley and Amba Kak, the report argues that “while zero-rating might make parts of the internet available to more people, it may also create distortions in the world’s news and information ecosystem that deserve further scrutiny.”

Findings from the report which examined zero-rating from the perspective of the news media ecosystem suggests that free internet using zero-rating as they are currently conducted, may not be significantly improving access to news and diverse sources of information.

The report defines zero-rating and explains the many forms it takes and the multiple partners involve often with different business interests. It also gave country cases from India, Burma, Philippines, and Jamaica, countries which CIMA researched and came out with the report.

It points out a number of issues around zero-rating and their implications for media pluralism in the news media ecosystem noting that “while zero-rating might make parts of the internet available to more people, it may also create distortions in the world’s news and information ecosystem that deserve further scrutiny.”

Noting that zero-rating favours certain web content and platforms over others and tilts the level playing field that a decentralized internet affords, the report adds that its research shows that free internet access through zero-rating may not be the panacea to resolving the digital divide that some had hoped.

Citing the example from India, the report says the backlash against Facebook’s Free Basics app included a concern over whether zero-rating would effectively limit the type of information available to citizens. It noted that Facebook faced accusations that its preferential treatment could skew the news media market because only a select group of news services were initially included in the offering

The report says four important findings emerge from the research which suggests that some of the arguments for zero-rating need to be reexamined. The report listed and expatiated on the four findings of the research.

The first finding of the CIMA research shows that little evidence exists to demonstrate that zero-rating alone has been a successful strategy to grow audience reach: the research finding shows that “while zero-rated offerings, and in particular app-based offerings like Free Basics, have been touted as a way for citizens to access news, the news outlets contacted for this report have not found these arrangements to significantly increase their audience reach.”

Another finding shows that due to technical hurdles news media inclusion is jeopardized as they are required to alter their content to meet zero-rated platform requirements. For many news organizations, this presents a technical barrier that can be hard to overcome. In particular, smaller independent news organizations that are not tech savvy may find it difficult to participate thereby making the offerings less diverse than what is available on the internet.

The third finding shows that zero-rating may exacerbate the spread of disinformation. This came out of the interviews conducted in the Philippines for the research where respondents “expressed concern that zero-rating may help spread disinformation online.” They based their fears on the fact that due to data charges, users may just read the sensational headlines of news stories but will not click through to read the full context of the article to avoid a data charge. Zero-rating does not provide full access to the internet, users are prevented from further investigating a story on their own to determine its accuracy or veracity for most stories when these stories are not on the zero-rated websites.

Finally, findings also show that zero-rated news is a concern for fair markets and pluralism. This is so because critics believe that it “effectively strengthens the market dominance of large platforms by helping them lock-in new consumers in developing markets,” and this may have long-term, detrimental impacts on pluralistic news ecosystems.

The report suggested two solutions to zero-rated free internet that does not presenta a level playing field.

The first of the suggested solutions is to zero-rate all internet data at 2G speeds by providing users access to the entire internet at much reduced speeds adding that this would potentially entice content producers to create sites accessible to users with low data speeds.

The second suggestions  is what it referred to as equal rating, which entails giving mobile users a limited amount of data to consume without restriction in return for watching an advertisement. This, the report believes, would “enable access to the ‘full internet’ on a limited basis, and also provide a subsidy (for those willing to watch advertisements), and therefore should address most of the concerns of net neutrality advocates” about internet service providers limiting what content is easily available.

To download the full report, please click CIMA_Zero_Rating_Paper