Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 12, 2016

The App, Net Neutality and the Digital Divide

Facebook on Thursday announced an app from – a project among companies including Facebook which tries to expand Internet access in parts of the world where people aren’t connected – that lets mobile phone users connect to certain websites without incurring data charges, starting with Airtel customers in Zambia. A couple articles say that’s a good thing or at least has the potential to do so, but they also lay out questions about implications on net neutrality and the digital divide.

David Meyer at Gigaom in his recent piece reiterates what he sees as pros and cons of “zero-rating” deals, with pros including providing Internet access to people who didn’t have it before.

Among his cons:

If users don’t pay up to exit the walled garden (and for many, why would they?) then it stymies any rival web service, by making it harder for people to find them, let alone use them. In other words, zero-rating entrenches powerful monopolies, hurts competition and potentially slows down innovation.

He later links the issue to net neturality: “If the idea of net neutrality previously seemed abstract, welcome to the reality of the world without it – for better and for worse. In the battle for the soul of the internet, these bargains may prove Faustian.”

Mat Honan at Wired brings up the question of the digital divide in his story. He writes that the app’s great, but adds that there’s an aspect to the framework that’s a cause for concern:

Giving free access to people who could not previously afford it is a Very Good Thing. Undoubtedly. No question. But an internet for poor people that in any way provides less access than the full-throated internet those of us reading this enjoy? That’s troubling. It’s another digital divide.

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