Is zero-rating a net neutrality violation? Chilean regulators think the practice – where phone carriers offer certain web services for free, but not others – does violate the principle, and have banned the practice in that country. The European Union’s former digital chief thinks it doesn’t, arguing it’s a competition issue if anything. And now Norway’s regulators have offered their opinion, siding with their counterparts in Chile.
Norway has a “co-regulatory” approach to net neutrality, which is to say that the Norwegian Post and Telecommunications Authority (NPT) has agreed to a set of guidelines with ISPs, content providers and consumer organizations. Adherence is voluntary but Norwegian ISPs have stuck to them since 2009, providing neutral internet access with the exception of using certain traffic management techniques.
In a Tuesday blog post, NPT senior advisor Frode Sørensen wrote that zero-rating definitely fell foul of the guidelines:
The Norwegian guidelines on net neutrality state quite clearly that “Internet users are entitled to an Internet connection that is free of discrimination with regard to type of application, service or content or based on sender or receiver address.” This means that in the Norwegian market zero-rating would constitute a violation of the guidelines. At first glance it may appear that all traffic is handled equally in this charging model, but the fact is that once you have used your quota, the traffic that is exempted will be allowed to continue, while all other traffic will be throttled or blocked. This is clearly a case of discrimination between different types of traffic.
The post makes for a good read, as it debunks some of the arguments used against net neutrality, pointing out that the principle is designed to “avoid discrimination or fragmentation of the internet” rather than to make sure all traffic is handled identically, “which would never be possible in practice.”
As Sørensen noted, data caps do not in themselves violate net neutrality, as long as specific types of traffic aren’t exempted – the definition of zero-rating. Of course, some forms of zero-rating seem harmless, such as the provision of free access to Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia (an increasingly prevalent tactic in emerging markets), but the practice can be more blatantly anti-competitive, such as when carriers zero-rate their own heavy-data video services but not those of rivals.
There are of course arguments in favour of zero-rating that make the method seem quite fair. As consumers, we may find it advantageous that we do not have to pay (extra) for a particular type of traffic. Nevertheless, zero-rating lead to selected traffic from the Internet service provider itself or affiliated providers being favoured above other traffic. And this is exactly the kind of situation net neutrality aims to avoid – allowing the Internet service provider to decide how we use the Internet. Instead, the Internet should remain an open, neutral platform for all types of communication.
Very few countries have strict net neutrality rules at this stage, namely Chile, the Netherlands and Slovenia. The EU is on its way to finalizing fairly strict net neutrality legislation (albeit with no specific mention of zero-rating) but, with a new Commission having just been installed, this process may be derailed at the last minute in favor of a new package of telecoms legislation.
Norway isn’t part of the EU but, as a member of the European Economic Area, EU net neutrality legislation would apply there too. According to a recent Digital Fuel Monitor report, the country is one of the few in the OECD area where operators don’t currently zero-rate anything. The others include Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Chile and Japan.