Since 2012, Wikipedia Zero has provided access to freely licensed educational information to mobile users in Africa and Asia, free of data charges. Its mission is to empower people in the Global South to access information and participate in the creation of knowledge, by bringing Wikipedia to the hundreds of millions of people who can’t afford mobile data charges. To ensure the program truly serves the public interest by expanding access to knowledge, it follows clear, publicly available operating principles.
Earlier this year, we began work to bring Wikipedia Zero to Latin America. We were concerned by articles that reported that a new government order in Chile would ban Wikipedia Zero in the country. Together with Wikimedia Chile, we contacted the Chilean telecommunications regulator, the Subsecretaria de Telecomunicaciones (SUBTEL), who confirmed to us that the new order was not intended to prevent Wikipedia Zero and similar free knowledge initiatives.
Chile is a leader when it comes to internet policy — in 2010 it was the first country in the world to enact legislation to preserve the open Internet. This law empowered SUBTEL, which enacts policies aimed to reduce the digital divide and promote competition to improve the living conditions for Chileans, to safeguard the openness of the Internet.
On April 14, 2014, SUBTEL ordered mobile carriers to stop selling bundled social media apps with voice and/or data plans in Chile, following concerns raised by a Chilean advocacy group about the practice. The SUBTEL order, titled Circular No. 40, prohibited commercial offers that would waive data charges when using particular social media sites and applications, finding that these offers were inconsistent with the 2010 Telecommunications Act.
To understand whether initiatives like Wikipedia Zero would be affected, we joined efforts with Wikimedia Chile, a local movement organization that shares in the Wikimedia mission. On July 23, we sent a letter to SUBTEL, explaining the operating principles behind Wikipedia Zero, and requesting clarification on whether Circular No. 40 would apply.
Undersecretary Huichalaf, the head of SUBTEL, accepted our invitation to discuss the order. In our conversation, the Undersecretary indicated he sees a clear difference between initiatives like Wikipedia Zero and the practices prohibited under Circular No. 40. He said that much of the media coverage had misreported the issues at stake. He also stressed that the order, which is not a law or a regulation, was intended to ban the specific practice of bundling zero-rated social media access with voice and data plans offered at that time (early April 2014) by local operators, and was not meant to be generalized or applied to other cases. Undersecretary Huichalaf emphasized SUBTEL’s commitment to education and making knowledge available to all Chileans, in line with Chilean President Bachelet’s commitment to equal opportunity to public quality education for all Chilean youth.
Accordingly, we hope to bring Wikipedia Zero to Chile as one of the first Latin American countries to deploy the program. The Undersecretary encouraged us to begin by reaching out to mobile carriers in Chile to seek an opinion from SUBTEL on how educational services like Wikipedia Zero could be introduced into Chile, consistent with the Chilean telecommunications law. Only Chilean carriers have the legal standing to request such an opinion.
Wikipedia Zero brings free information to those who cannot afford the cost of mobile data. In many nations, people access the internet primarily through inexpensive, ubiquitous mobile phones rather than costly, uncommon computers. However, mobile data is often more expensive than voice services, creating a significant barrier for the poor to freely access information. Wikipedia Zero works with mobile carriers to waive data charges on mobile devices to allow users free access to all Wikimedia sites. So far, this program has made the knowledge freely accessible to an estimated 375 million mobile phone users in 31 countries.
According to our colleagues at Wikimedia Chile:
“A program like Wikipedia Zero would grant Chile the opportunity to access knowledge through Wikipedia in a way and at a scale that was unthinkable in the past. Mobile phones are very common throughout Chile, and this would open doors where this knowledge will be freely available to everyone instantly, with ease. This would certainly become a powerful educational channel, which would allow us, as Chileans, to increase our understanding of ourselves and our culture, and at the same time give us the chance to learn more about everything that surrounds us and to which we remain connected. A program like this could directly impact our human development and how we conceive our environment.”
We are confident the Wikipedia Zero program fits within Chile’s legal framework and is consistent with the country’s commitment to improving access to education for its citizens. We look forward to working with all Chilean mobile carriers interested in bringing free knowledge to the people of Chile through Wikipedia Zero. Carriers interested in Wikipedia Zero can contact us at email@example.com for more information on how to get started.
Yana Welinder, Legal Counsel
Carolynne Schloeder, Director of Mobile Partnerships
- See e.g., Tech President, Quartz, Pando, and La Nación (in Spanish)
- A copy of the letter (in Spanish, with an English translation) is available on Wikimedia Commons, and reproduced below.