Chile has ordered wireless carriers to stop offering free access to websites like Facebook or Wikipedia in accordance with its net neutrality laws, which view those offers as detrimental to the idea of a free Internet. The question is this: will nixing these offers harm Chile’s progress, or will it demonstrate the country’s commitment to giving its citizens real net neutrality laws?
Quartz argues the former point. Because so few Chileans have broadband connections — wired or wireless — it believes that taking away their free access to those sites will “delay adoption of the world’s most transformative technology since electricity.” That means Chileans will have to “pay to find out whether this thing called the internet is really for them.” But is that really so terrible?
Consumers pay for Internet connections because it allows them to access whatever they want. They aren’t restricted to just a few websites, and they aren’t living in the filter bubbles created by companies like Google and Facebook to make sure their products become synonymous with “the Internet” in consumers’ minds. Giving Chileans a taste of what the Internet has to offer is admirable — doing it to ensure a steady customer base against which only certain companies can sell advertisements using information that they wouldn’t have otherwise had is less heartwarming.
I addressed this problem in a post about GoSmart allowing its customers to visit Facebook without having to worry about paying for the requisite data in December 2013. Besides using an extended metaphor about ice cream shops and flavors to explain net neutrality, I wrote:
What is the difference between charging consumers extra to access one website and allowing them to access a specific service at no cost? Someone is giving consumers a reason to access one website instead of another either way. Both approaches give preferential treatment to one service over the competition. The underlying principle — that a byte from one website should cost more or less than a byte from another website — is the same.
The extent to which a country’s citizens have connected to the Internet doesn’t make that any less true. Getting people to pay for the open Internet is more admirable than getting them onto an Internet for free where the only available sites come from companies that can afford to subsidize data connections — or have the clout to convince wireless carriers to offer those connections for free. Chile should be commended for its commitment to net neutrality, not condemned for taking Facebook away.
Perhaps there could be an exception for nonprofit organizations like Wikipedia, which would allow Chileans to access the world’s information at a moment’s notice without compromising their privacy in exchange for advertising revenues, but that would require some legal finagling. Until then, it looks like Chile believes that a free Internet is better than free time on Facebook.