Today Facebook launched a new service, called Discover, that helps people stay connected to the internet by delivering only the text-based elements of websites (essentially acting as a proxy that removes the audio and video portions before delivering the site to the user). This service significantly reduces the quantity of data delivered to users (and strain on mobile networks). In exchange Facebook is making a deal with mobile providers that those providers will provide a set level of ‘free’ (i.e. outside of data caps) access to the service.
This practice, known as zero rating, is common, but it has also been controversial. Metered billing (selling network access based on data consumption) forces people to ration their use of the internet to avoid running out of data or incurring additional fees. Zero rating, in which some network traffic is not counted toward data limits, offers some relief from the constraint of data caps. However, many programs are structured so as to favor a few web offerings over all others, which undermines an open internet by leveraging the price of data to advantage the zero-rated sites.
Zero rating became a hot topic in 2015 as a different Facebook product, Free Basics, received intense scrutiny from policymakers and regulators. Mobile carriers around the world partner with Facebook to offer zero rated access to Free Basics, which functions as a portal to a selection of websites. One of the biggest critiques of Free Basics was the limited content available through the portal; it did not allow users to connect to the full internet, only a walled garden of sites that met the technical criteria and passed the approval process.
Discover represents a significant improvement over Free Basics in several aspects. First, it does not limit the websites that users can access. Instead, it removes any high bandwidth content, such as video and audio files, from whatever site the user chooses, delivering a text-only version of any website. This is a big step closer toward an approach to zero rating that preserves the openness of the internet. Although a text-only web cannot provide the same experiences, services, and informational density as the complete offerings of most sites, it does offer access to much of the web’s available information. While the full internet, with video and audio, would be preferred, Discover offers a way for people to fill temporary gaps in connectivity, like running out of data a few days before your plan renews.
This system largely preserves users’ ability to choose where they go and what they do on the internet, with the obvious exception of streaming video and audio sites. It also eliminates the need for websites to negotiate terms or restructure themselves to meet technical criteria as part of a zero rated offering. This eliminates ISPs’ role in choosing which websites will benefit from being zero rated—one of the bigger concerns from a net neutrality perspective—and precludes the possibility for exclusive arrangements.
CDT appreciates the improvements Discover offers, many of which align with the preferred attributes we identified in our paper on zero rating. We look forward to learning more as the service rolls out, especially about how much data carriers will offer for Discover users and how people use it. We are also eager to see how Discover evolves, for example to accommodate those with print disabilities. As long as metered data plans are the status quo, zero rating will be an appealing option for data-conscious browsing. And while zero rating offers imperfect relief to the problems created by artificial scarcity, Facebook’s Discover should be applauded for helping to preserve user choice and facilitate more continuous access to the internet.