Wikipedia Zero and Net Neutrality: Protecting the Internet as a Public Space

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Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment. – Wikimedia Foundation Vision Statement
In November 2012, a group of students at Sinenjongo High School in Joe Slovo Park, a poor South African township, launched a petition to South African cell phone providers to provide access to Wikipedia free of charge. The students used Wikipedia for homework and research, but the data charges were almost prohibitive. In February 2014, MTN South Africa responded, making Wikipedia free for their subscribers. This was done under the umbrella of a Wikimedia Foundation program known as Wikipedia Zero.
Wikipedia Zero launched in 2012 to bring free access to Wikipedia on mobile phones. Today, Wikipedia Zero is available to an estimated 350 million people in 29 countries; it serves more than 65 million pageviews for free, every month.
Mobile phones now connect nearly everyone in the world, and mobile access to Wikipedia is a two-way street. In Nepal, one dedicated editor has contributed more than 6,000 edits from a simple feature phone. For the first time in human history, our vision of empowering every person on the planet to share in the sum of all knowledge is within reach. Yet, like the Sinenjongo High School students, many people still cannot afford the mobile data charges for accessing the Internet. According to the ITU [PDF], as many as four billion people still do not use the Internet.
As the world has become more connected, citizens and policymakers have become more concerned with protecting the Internet as a public space. One of these policy issues that people around the world are grappling with is net neutrality, the principle of ensuring a consistent quality of service on networks.

The Wikimedia Foundation believes that the principle of net neutrality is critical to the future of the open Internet. In order for information to be available to all, Internet Service Providers must not create different classes of service for different types of content to serve their commercial interests. This is consistent with the principles upon which the Internet was founded: equal delivery of data, regardless of source.
In the context of these discussions, people sometimes raise the question of how net neutrality policies should address with the practice of waiving charges for specific sites and services, known as zero-rating. Advocates for an open and free Internet have raised important questions about how sponsored access to certain services affects innovation by favoring incumbents with the ability to pay for preferential access to users.
Net neutrality serves all Internet users – rich as poor – by providing equal access to diverse content online. We support net neutrality, and believe it is crucial for a healthy, free, and open Internet.
Wikipedia Zero is not a commercial program. Our public operating principles include:

  • No exchange of payment. The Wikimedia Foundation does not pay carriers to zero-rate access to the Wikimedia sites and does not receive payments from carriers through Wikipedia Zero.
  • Wikipedia Zero cannot be sold as part of a bundle. Access to the Wikimedia sites through Wikipedia Zero cannot be sold through limited service bundles.
  • No exclusive rights. We try to partner with as many carriers as possible to maximize the number of users that can benefit from the initiative.
  • Open to collaborating with other public interest sites. Our main goal is to promote free access to knowledge and we want to help other similar services interested in doing the same.

These principles are designed to balance the social impact of the program with Wikimedia’s other values, including our commitment to net neutrality. We will continue working with the Wikimedia community and with net neutrality advocates to evolve the program’s design, with the goal to make it possible to replicate these principles for other public interest projects in a manner fully consistent with net neutrality policy objectives.
We believe that as the world comes online, ensuring free access to important resources like Wikipedia is a social justice issue, as illustrated by the petition by South African students. We believe that free access to public interest resources can be provided in a manner that keeps the playing field level and avoids net neutrality issues. The Internet has tremendous potential to bring education and services to people for free. Beyond Wikipedia, this includes potentially life-saving access to health and emergency services or disaster relief.
Policymakers can design laws that uphold and affirm net neutrality without damaging the Internet’s ability to spread the free information it was designed to share. In the United States, the FCC’s previous Open Internet Rules, for example, simply focused on prohibiting blocking and unreasonable discrimination against content providers. Similarly, the recently adopted Marco Civil bill in Brazil does not prohibit free Internet connection as long as ISPs do not monitor, filter, or block content.
We believe that policymakers should make global communications policies that serve the public interest. It is not in the interests of the public to have an Internet with slow and fast lanes where few commercial players dominate our information society. And it is absolutely in the interests of the public to use the Internet to provide free access to education, knowledge, medical information, or other public services. We believe that these goals are entirely consistent, and we hope Wikipedia Zero can serve as a model for how to balance these interests carefully.
Indeed, we invite every mobile operator on the planet to join the cause of free sharing in the sum of human knowledge, and we invite other public interest sites and services to work with us. Email us at We also encourage you to sign our petition in support of the program, inspired by the students of  Sinenjongo High School.
Erik MoellerDeputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation

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Thank you for this statement. This was necessary. But although the huge benefits of Wikipedia zero, I still believe that it is a really dangerous strategical move: 1 – This is a too easy argument we give to net neutrality opponents 2 – The powers always benefit from complex/fuzzy laws. They rule thanks the complexity of the system. Thus, I don’t want to have laws which give the permission to Telcos (or a court) to decide what is “reasonable” or not. It has to be simple, without exceptions, otherwise we are lost. I also deeply think that most of what… Read more »

Would it be possible to get some data about what the median download speed is for a “typical” user of the Wikipedia Zero service on a mobile browser on a typical cell phone in a South African township? Further, could we get a video of how long it takes for a typical Wikipedia page to load into a typical South African township resident’s mobile phone browser, using one of these Wikipedia Zero plans that are free of data charges?

How are people suppose to edit the Wikipedia if they are allowed free access only to Wikipedia, and have to pay for visiting the reliable sources of information?
Doesn’t Wikipedia Zero furthers the digital divide, bolding the difference between those who have full access and can contribute to the Encyclopedia, and those other who will be only readers?

@Paulo: It doesn’t widen the divide, no. In my opinion, it’s a step in the right direction. Highlighting the difference between those with full access and those without doesn’t make the problem any more or less present. On the contrary, making the problem more visible is crucial to bridging this divide.
Unencumbered access to knowledge is a fantastic goal, but we don’t currently have this even in the global north. There are lots of steps along the path to reach this goal. Wikipedia Zero is one big step on the way.

I want my money back from the foundation.
This is the beginning of the end for net-neutrality.
Although I fully understand why this happens, it is philosophically an untenable position.
1984 by George Orwell, Adolf Hitler, all animals are equal but some are more equal then others.

Nice thought, i really like it

Noone with a clear mind believes what Erik says:
Erik’s vision is destroying the free internet as we need it. And i fear he isn’t even capable of understanding that. And if he is, he doesn’t care.

I’m really disappointed in the Wikimedia Foundation. This step kills net neutrality and wasn’t necessary at all. “Wikipedia Zero” is a betrayal of the idea of a free and open internet, which was the single greatest technology of our time. Something that seemed to be important to the Wikimedia Foundation in the past. 🙁

As a Wikipedia donor, I find this new development completely at odds with the principles of net neutrality. I strongly suggest that you consult with none-corporate affiliated digital rights groups/ watchdogs concerning the legal implications of Wikipedia Zero and seriously consider which side of net neutrality history Wikipedia wants to be associated with. I for one will not be making any more donations if this project goes ahead and will look for alternative sources of free information more in line with my principles.

While your intentions are noble, rarely is nobility served by a devil’s bargain. Free access to Wikipedia for the multitudes who cannot afford data plans is wonderful; it is a fantastic idea. But this announcement could not be more ill-timed given the current debate over the future of net neutrality in this country (US). The very telecos that seek to undermine net neutrality will use your partnership as a PR stunt in order burnish their image. Your words about net neutrality and the timing of this announcement are at odds. You can’t have it both ways. Not now, not while… Read more »

@Andy In my vision, Wikipedia is revolutionary exactly by redefining access to knowledge in practice, not only as solely being able to read information someone else gives you, but also being able to collaborate in the construction of knowledge, being able to personally participate in the encyclopedic gathering of all the human knowledge, if that’s the personal choice. It comes with a lot of freedom. Once Wikipedia Zero gives less than all that, it is not a step in the path of free access to knowledge, but only an extra-inexpensive e-book. Once again, the very people with less power are… Read more »

The Wikipedia Zero initiative is not new. If someone believes that it collides with net neutrality, why not complaining years ago?

@Ziko van Dijk
This complains are not new. Why not ask that weeks ago?

::: Using online publications like The Crisis Magazine — an important early 20th century publication for African American culture — the students set out on a journey to research, edit and contribute to the world’s largest encyclopedia. ::: – Wikipedia in the classroom: Empowering students in the digital age, BY carlosmonterrey ON August 18th, 2014
That would not have happen under WIkipedia Zero.

Disheartening to learn that Wikemedia wants special access (i.e., be recognized as a different class of service by the ISPs – Internet Service Providers ) instead of strongly supporting and fighting for net neutrality as defined by the Wikipedia article on Net neutrality . According the the Wikipedia article on Net neutrality: “Net neutrality (also network neutrality or Internet neutrality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.” So, it seems, Wikimedia’s… Read more »

I am not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, there is a direct benefit to people who can access this information for free. On the other hand, you are playing into hands of ISPs/Telcos who are making a case to detroy net neutrality. These custom partnerships are counter productive. Am I, as an operator of small website (commercial or non), expected to go to every telco and pay them a fee/negotiate an agreement for letting users’ access my site faster. This is not going in right direction … ISPs/Telco charge money to consumers and now, they will… Read more »

which was the single greatest technology of our time . Wikipedia page to load into a typical South African township resident’s mobile phone browser

As a funder and supporter of Wikipedia, I’ll have to seriously rethink things after reading this. As other commenters have pointed out, this is completely at odds with the principles of net neutrality.

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Thanks for the information!

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