Zero Rating Broadband Data: Equality and Free Speech at the Network's Other Edge
30 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2016 Last revised: 26 Feb 2017
Date Written: February 13, 2017
When broadband providers “zero rate” data, they offer certain services or buckets of data for free without counting consumption against the user’s data caps. Depending on how these offers are structured, they be anti-competitive and violate net neutrality norms of open access. But they may also subsidize broadband access and increase expressive opportunities for users. Net neutrality theory has tended to focus on the free speech and economic inequality at the edge provider end of digital networks, positing that users have identical or derivative interests. The “virtuous cycle” of innovation at the heart of U.S. open networks policy starts and ends at the provider edge of the network. This conception of innovation overlooks digital divide issues and user economic constraint. Especially as customers of speech platforms, such as social media or video sharing sites, users may have interests that diverge from those of edge providers. Because some zero rating practices benefit users at the consumer edge of the network, blanket bans can have a regressive effect, especially where the risk of competitive harm to edge providers is relatively small. By the same token, zero rating should not be permitted where broadband platform self-dealing and other practices pose substantial risk of competitive harm and minimal increase in expressive opportunities for users.
Keywords: net neutrality, zero rating, free speech, digital divide, edge providers, broadband
JEL Classification: K23
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation