Zero rating should be part of the net neutrality discussion

Originally, this blog post was simply about the fact that nobody was saying “net neutrality” and “zero rating” in the same sentence. But then I found out that somebody was and far more eloquently than I, so go read this as a primer.

Given that Jon Healey made the argument so well, I am going to try to make a slightly different point. Not “Why doesn’t anyone object to zero rating?” but rather “How is it that people can both support zero rating and net neutrality?” After all, that is a fairly complicated mental gymnastics routine: “I am unwilling for networks to decide what content should be fast or slow, but I am entirely willing for them to decide whether it should be free or not.”

Brief recap of the argument: zero rating is actually a form of preferential traffic handling that is exactly analogous to the speed discussion that is dominating the net neutrality debate. It just subs cost for speed. In the same way that Comcast could choose to make Netflix faster or slower, they could choose to make you pay for the actual bandwidth to deliver Netflix or not, either by specifically charging you for Netflix traffic (which consumers would rebel against) or by making other types of traffic free (which consumers are celebrating in the form of zero rating on mobile carriers).

From a psych perspective, this is all about framing. Zero rating is framed as a gain: you would normally have to pay for this content but due to the benevolence of networks, it is free. Traffic shaping is framed as a loss: you would normally get this content fast but due to the evil of networks, it is slow.

You could, however, switch the frame on either statement. For zero rating: you would normally get this content for free but due to the evil of networks, you have to pay. For traffic shaping: you would normally get this content slow but due to the benevolence of the networks, it is fast.

And those statements are actually true. Right now, zero rate services are a marketing tactic simply because most services don’t zero rate and you do have to pay for the data they use. To put it differently, there is a contrast effect, where paying is the norm and free is different. If zero rating became the new norm, however, paying for bandwidth would feel exactly like slow services – a loss.

It would have the same market effects as well. Pandora and T-Mobile are big enough to have bizdev folks and lawyers and finance that make zero rating possible; your average startup can’t zero rate. Thus, if zero rating becomes rampant, big companies will win and small companies will lose, because they don’t have easy access to the machinery that allows for zero rating. Middlemen like Syntonic may fill in that market gap, but that will come at a price.

I’m not advocating for or against net neutrality, at least not here. But I do believe that that discussion should include zero rating. Whether it is cost or speed, gain or loss, it is important that we don’t let our framing biases keep us from making guidelines that are based not the internet as we use it today but the internet that will exist tomorrow. For every scenario we consider, we must consciously resist our biases and posit its opposite in frame, in concept, and in execution. It is only then that we can build an internet for the future.

Side note: If we made connectivity free, the price of hardware would go up steeply. Is it possible that we’re going to return to a world where the ability to afford the phone is going to be the gating factor, not affording the data?