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Zero-rating the news: highlights from the Global Media Policy Forum

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Zero-rating the news: highlights from the Global Media Policy Forum

The Global Media Policy Forum brought together publishers and internet governance experts from around the world to discuss the news media's relationship with zero-rating, focusing specifically on how it is implemented in Facebook's Free Basics initiative.

For a briefing about Free Basics, click here. To read more about the Forum panelists, see here.


Do smaller, alternative and oppositional media have equal opportunities to participate in zero-rating services? How do such initiatives impact the news environment of a country? Is Free Basics succeeding in bringing unconnected people to the full internet, or is it a "sugar-coated pill", designed to allow Facebook to collect data about new users?

These are just some of the many issues that were explored at the Forum. A common theme ran through the discussions: the news media need to consider the implications of participating in zero-rating services more carefully than has been the case so far, in order to fully assess the issues at stake.

Publishers seem to have seen Free Basics mostly as an additional platform through which to distribute their content and reach new readers, rather than considering the wider implications of participating in it. This at least was the case for two of the newspapers that were represented at the Forum.

"The first time I heard of Free Basics was when I was asked to talk about it here," said Ana Marie Pamintuan, whose publication the Philippine Star was one of the first publications to be part of Free Basics. The editorial team of the newspaper was not consulted on the decision, or even told about it.

El Tiempo, the Colombian newspaper that initially participated in Free Basics, pulled out eventually after the newspaper started looking into the controversies and criticism that Free Basics has faced, particularly in India but also in other Latin American countries. "When we looked into this, we discovered that many civil rights organisations, also in Colombia, complained about the initiative, and many people in our newsroom had concerns about zero-rating initiatives and how they relate to the concept of net neutrality," José Antonio Sánchez said.

The experience of the two publishers also confirms that news outlets participating in Free Basics get little information beyond the basic online audience figures, as more detailed information on the readers stays with Facebook.

The fact that both El Tiempo and the Philippine Star are major newspapers in their markets was not lost on the panel, as the technical requirements for being included in Free Basics could prove to be limiting to some publishers. "Often young organisations that operate in places of conflict, or protest movements and oppositional media, don't have the technical capabilities to meet those basic requirements," Daniel O'Maely said, pointing out that even if there is no other selection process for being included in Free Basics, the technical requirements can effectively work as such.

Impact on news ecosystems

One major concern that arose during the conversations was about having one actor, in this case Facebook, in a central position with regard to distribution and access to news. Which news media are included in Free Basics alone can have a big impact on what news content is accessible, especially if it is the only way of getting online for as section of the market.

"We don't have a lot of data yet, but in general it's safe to say that Facebook is going to the largest news producers in countries. That's going to affect the news ecosystem also in terms of what content is shared on social media," Daniel O-Maley said. He also pointed out the parallel trend of social media becoming more and more important as a source of news, despite Facebook maintaining that it is not a news publisher.

It should also be remembered that many of the countries where Free Basics exists have a low level of media pluralism. So the inclusion of specific news outlets (and exclusion of others) is almost certain to have an impact on the news market more widely. "We need to consider the broader implications for the information environment that is being created, and therefore implications for press freedom," Courtney Radsch pointed out.

Unfortunately, Facebook hasn't been open enough about its policies, the panelists said, to fully assess what kind of impact Free Basics might have on news environments.

For now, many questions remain: What would happen if a government asks Facebook to remove an oppositional publisher from Free Basics? How can a fair and pluralistic news environment be ensured through zero-rating services?

Francisco Brito Cruz said that news content needs particular consideration, and decisions on what news is included should be given specific attention to in order to guarantee a level of diversity of opinion. "When we talk about news media, we talk about content that is essential to people for them to make decisions."

In Colombia, the issue has particular relevance, José Antonio Sánchez said: as the peace negotiations were concluding, a large number of previously unconnected people were expected to get online: "Guerilla members, farmers, ranchers and so on will be coming from the countryside and wanting to participate in the information networks. In that context, we don't know if Free Basics is too limited an approach in our news ecosystem."

Alternatives to expanding connectivity

According to Facebook, Free Basics has a humanitarian ambition of bringing internet access to previously unconnected people, who will then benefit greatly from access to information online. But some speculate that Free Basics is designed to allow Facebook to garner data about the people who currently don't have internet connection. As user data is key to Facebook's business plan, they wonder if Free Basics is a "sugar-coated pill", a project of self-interest for Facebook wrapped in a social mission rhetoric, as a commentator from the audience suggested.

Both panels agreed that if one takes the issue of connectivity seriously, also other options for expanding internet access should be considered. Free Basics should therefore be taken as a start of a conversation, rather than taking Facebook's word that it is the best approach to the issue.

Dr. Igbal Survé discussed the topic from the African perspective, where the key issue is reducing the cost of bandwidth so that it is more affordable to the over one billion Africans who are not connected: "The truth is, for this to be meaningful and effective, you need system-wide cooperation between private sector, governments, network operators, publishers, even schools."

Therefore Free Basics, or zero-rating more generally, is just one element of a much larger solution in working towards higher connectivity. Telecommunications companies' commitment is particularly important: "[Telcos] have invested in infrastructure, but at the end of the day, how much are they really putting back in," Dr. Survé said.

Given that the cost of zero-rating services are mostly covered by telecoms, that money could plausibly be invested in infrastructure instead, which would also help in expanding connectivity, Francisco Brito Cruz suggested. "But it's difficult to debate this if we don't know more precisely who is paying, and how much, so again we come back to the transparency question."

Moveover, Free Basics and zero-rating could be seen as corporate social responsibility projects or even more generally in the context of development. This would highlight the role of the state. "It's true that the debate is mostly driven by large corporations. Given that its a public interest issue, maybe the more public-minded initiatives need to be brought to the forefront of these debates," Daniel O'Maley said.

Concluding the Forum, the panelists regretted that the people participating in these discussions tend to be those who already have internet access. "The people who are offline are not heard, but we have a tendency to speak on their behalf. The unconnected need to be part of this conversation," Konstantinos Komaitis said. "There are 4 billion people whose voices are not heard in this conversation, but what we're discussing impacts them."


Teemu Henriksson's picture

Teemu Henriksson


2016-07-19 13:12

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