Zero Rating: A Framework for Assessing Benefits and Harms

Discussions around zero rating settle into three basic positions on whether and under what circumstances network operators should be permitted to exempt certain Internet traffic from otherwise-applicable usage-based pricing. Opponents of zero rating maintain that discriminatory pricing of different types or sources of Internet traffic violates net neutrality’s core tenet of content and application agnosticism and therefore should be prohibited. Proponents hold that zero rating is an efficient form of price discrimination that benefits network operators, edge providers, and users by lowering costs and providing incentives to “get online.” Between these perspectives is a view of zero rating as a commercial arrangement in varying degrees of tension with net neutrality, but that nonetheless may confer benefits that outweigh the potential harm caused by this tension.

This paper proposes a framework for advancing the discussion of this middle ground. It approaches zero rating in a manner similar to other key questions in implementing and applying net neutrality laws and regulations, such as network management, usage-based pricing, or specialized services that rely on the same infrastructure as the “public” Internet while serving a separate function. Answering these questions often takes a multi-factored and fact-specific approach. Drawing in part from those approaches, the framework sets forth factors to help determine whether a specific arrangement conveys potential benefits and minimizes inconsistency with or harm to net neutrality such that, on balance, the arrangement benefits users of the open Internet.


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