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Wikipedia Zero to be discontinued; Facebook’s FreeBasics should follow suit

By Aakriti Srivastava and Nikhil Pahwa

Wikipedia Zero, a Net Neutrality violating programme that allowed access to the online encyclopaedia without any data consumption being counted, is being discontinued. “Over the course of this year, no additional Wikipedia Zero partnerships will be formed, and the remaining partnerships with mobile operators will expire,” the Wikimedia Foundation said in a blog post. Wikipedia Zero is one of two global zero rating programs, with the other being Facebook’s Free Basics, which hasn’t been discontinued yet.

Since its launch in 2012, Wikipedia Zero had partnered with 97 mobile carriers in 72 countries. Among them was Aircel in India. Both Wikipedia Zero and Free Basics were disallowed and discontinued in India following the TRAI’s ruling on Differential Pricing.

The announcement, the foundation said, was made after “careful evaluation”, adding that there has been a significant drop off in adoption and interest in the programme since 2016. This may be partly because of the rapidly shifting mobile industry, and reduction in mobile data costs. Further, the Wikimedia Foundation found little awareness of the brand outside North America and Europe. In a 2016 research, it learned that many people in Nigeria, India, and Mexico were unaware that Wikipedia exists, let alone how to use it.

The question of Net Neutrality

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Wikimedia had earlier argued that Wikipedia Zero was not commercial: it did not pay carriers to zero-rate it did not receive payments from carriers through Wikipedia Zero. It also restricted Wikipedia Zero from being sold as a part of a bundle, and gave no exclusive rights to one carrier. “We believe that as the world comes online, ensuring free access to important resources like Wikipedia is a social justice issue,” it had said.

Nikhil Pahwa adds: Wikipedia Zero and Free Basics are both instances of ISPs and Telecom Operators giving preferential treatment to these specific services over the ones that they compete with; whether there is a commercial relationship between them and the access service providers or not is immaterial: they lead to the greater usage of these specific services over the rest of the Internet, and give access service providers disproportionate power to pick winners. For example, why Wikipedia Zero, and why not Khan Academy? Or why Wikipedia Zero and not Encyclopedia Britannica? ISPs need to be mere exchanges of data, and not shape Internet usage. Services like Wikipedia Zero ended up being sugar-coating on the harmful zero rating services, and Wikipedia could have done better to pull the service sooner. There needs to be a global ban on Zero Rating and Facebook should shut down Free Basics as well.

The focus needs to be on reducing access costs to the entire Internet. As Tim Berners-Lee says: all of the Internet, for all of the people, all of the time.


Disclosure from Nikhil Pahwa: I co-founded and ran the SaveTheInternet.in campaign for Net Neutrality in India.

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