The Threat of Wikipedia Zero

As members of an educated first world, we take Wikipedia for granted.  We believe the right to scour random articles, settle disagreements using wiki authoritatively, and research with reckless abandon as inalienable. This privilege is empowering, because as they say, knowledge is power.

While the internet does not discriminate between who can and cannot access free content, some people have less access than others. In the developing world where phones are cheap and cell phone penetration is high, data remains expensive – and thus access to Wikipedia remains stratified.

Transient

Wikipedia Zero (WZ), a new initiative launched by the Wikimedia foundation, aims to remedy this barrier by providing mobile access to Wikipedia free of data charge in developing countries. Wikimedia sees access to knowledge as a fundamental human right; by partnering with mobile phone operators to deploy a free version of Wikipedia, Wikimedia will deliver on the promise of making knowledge truly free and universally accessible.

60% of individuals at the base of the economic pyramid in Kenya have mobile phones, but the cost of mobile services can be 25% of their monthly income.

If you are encouraged by the spirit of this initiative consider donating here.

There is an important caveat to mention. My astute friend, Giulia Angi (@GiuliaWithG), noted that such a program would require operators to violate net neutrality by implying that some bits, in this case Wikipedia bits, are created more equal than others.  

This dichotomy has important implications – could Wikipedia Zero be the first in a path down a slippery slope? For instance, could Facebook then partner with (read: pay) AT&T to make Facebook content available for free? This would be monopolistic and anti-competitive since startups would have difficulty competing with Facebook in such a situation.

To answer this, we need to recognize that there are 3 players - the consumer, the ISP, and the content provider and we need to look at 2 scenarios.

Green: current situation; Red: hypothetical situation

Green: current situation; Red: hypothetical situation

Note: I see violating net neutrality as analogous to being monopolistic -  raising prices and reducing quantity/quality to maximize profits. This hurts the consumer, net neutrality seeks to avoid this and protect the consumer.

Top Right: This is the current situation where the ISP is not charging their user more for the use of WZ. Practically speaking this is not a violation of net neutrality. Or put differently, as noted by Austan Goolsbee, Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics at Chicago Booth,

“It’s hard to argue that it’s hurting consumer surplus if it’s free.”

Top Left: If however, ISPs were charging users more for the service, then it would be in obvious violation of net neutrality. They would be discriminating between types of content and increasing costs (read: screwing the consumer) to capture consumer surplus.

Bottom Right: An ISP can charge the user or it can charge the content provider. In the current situation they are not charging WZ to provide this content, so it's all gravy Would the same be true if they were to charge, say, Facebook? 

Bottom Left: This is a dangerous situation to be in, where the ISP charges the content provider to push bits. Last week, while writing this post, it happened: AT&T's sponsored data plan that lets brands pay to deliver content.

Wikipedia Zero is not to blame for AT&Ts scheming, so I stand strong behind the mission to make the world's knowledge free and universally accessible. But I am wary of the impending digital state of affairs.