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Is Free WhatsApp a Breach of Net Neutrality?

By | [email protected] | February 1, 2018 6:10pm


While net neutrality is currently the law of the land in Argentina, it is not well enforced, according to some analysts.

Right now, many Argentine cellphone carrier companies offer WhatsApp for free (yes, we know the app itself is free, but hear us out), meaning that users do not spend their data when using the app. While free access to the application can be a benefit for consumers, both Infobae and Clarín report this as the carriers illegally prioritizing the popular messaging app, and thus, a possible breach of net neutrality.

Article 57 of Argentina’s Digital Law prohibits “determining the price of Internet access by virtue of its content, services, protocols or applications,” and by offering ‘free’ WhatsApp, it seems as though these cellphone carriers are essentially driving users to this app. Of course, no one is complaining, because everyone wants free WhatsApp – but the question remains of whether this will actually be beneficial for consumers in the long run.

Consider other messaging apps trying to break into the Argentine market. New messaging startups would have a very hard time convincing cellphone users to start using a different messaging app that would potentially suck up their data plans when they can use as much WhatsApp as they want.

Ryan Singel, a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society said that this type of “freebie” distorts the tech market, which infringes upon net neutrality. “There are ways to give some free data that are not application specific,” Singel said. “You could say any time a user is at a low bandwidth mode, it doesn’t count against your data cap. Or you could say, ‘on weekends, data is free!’ As long as you’re not distorting the market. Those sorts of violations are the trickiest ones.”

According to Singel, giving one application to users for free distorts the market, because it makes competition more difficult.

This practice of offering a certain type of application or service for free is called “zero-rating.” Many analysts argue that zero-rating violates net neutrality, and it is controversial internationally, with the EU investigating the impact of cases in Portugal and the UK (pre-Brexit).

Jeremy Malcolm, a global policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation agrees that this type of zero-rating is ultimately bad for consumers, even if it doesn’t seem like it now. “It is just going to reduce the ability for other applications to enter the market,” Malcolm said. Another app “may have a superior product, a product that is better for your privacy, or a product that is locally developed. In Argentina, they might like to support a local product, by they don’t because WhatsApp is free.”

In addition to this, it should be noted that WhatsApp is owned by Internet-giant Facebook. So, while cellphone carriers give a Facebook-owned app unlimited access to Argentine customers, smaller companies lose the ability to reach local consumers, because Argentines have to pay for data to use other apps.

However, Argentine net neutrality expert José Crettaz defended the practice, arguing that it doesn’t violate net neutrality because it doesn’t restrict any content. “The purpose of net neutrality is to guarantee freedom of expression,” Crettaz asserted. “And to me, it doesn’t seem like free WhatsApp violates freedom of expression. Really, it’s the opposite. It facilitates a channel of communication so that users with prepaid phone plans – which more than half of Argentines use – can communicate for free.”

The issue is complicated, because it dives into what the purpose of net neutrality is. If the purpose is freedom of expression, as Crettaz says, then providing free WhatsApp is legal and a benefit to consumers. However, Singel and Malcolm argue that in order to truly provide consumers with the best apps possible, competition needs to fair, which means no zero-rating.

With a new media bill in the works, journalists who have seen the bill say that it’s supposed to guarantee net neutrality. At this time, however, whether it will cover zero-rating and how exactly it will affect users remains unclear.