Asad Mukhtar, a 27-year-old man who is currently employed in Karachi as a cook, is grateful for the free WhatsApp service from his cellphone provider Zong—one of the five largest telecommunications companies in Pakistan, owned by China Mobile. The service “has made communication with my family and friends back home very convenient and I don’t have to worry about data recharge to speak to them,” he told me recently.
Millions of Pakistanis like Mukhtar enjoy free internet offers from their cellphone providers. And thanks to Facebook’s Free Basics initiative, which was intended to help people from developing countries get online, most of them also access a small part of the internet free of cost. But while people may be happily using these offers, they are flagrant violations of net neutrality—the idea that internet access should be the same for everyone and that internet service providers shouldn’t prioritize certain content over the rest of the internet.
This often comes in the form of zero-rating plans like Zong’s WhatsApp offer. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains that “zero-rating plans exempt particular data from counting against a user’s data cap, or from accruing any excess usage charges.” In the U.S., zero-rating plans include T-Mobile’s Binge On, which offers subscribers the opportunity to watch streaming content without it counting toward their data plan—but the video quality is reduced. (Zero-rating services were controversial under the Obama-era net neutrality guidelines, but the Federal Communications Commission closed an investigation into them once the Trump-appointed chair took over.)
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