In developing countries where nearly all users pay for their Internet on a capped and metered basis (rather than having the “all you can eat” unlimited Internet data packages on offer in many developed countries), zero-rating — where data is offered that does not count toward the user’s data cap — is a subsidy that can be important to operators, content providers and users. Social media and text-messaging applications are among the content that is commonly zero-rated.

For users, zero-rating provides an opportunity to save money because they bear no cost of the zero-rated data. For telecom operators and content providers, zero-rating is an opportunity to increase their customer base — as long as appealing content is zero-rated.

But zero-rating has proven to be hugely controversial. The debate touches upon issues of net neutrality — the concept that all content should be treated equally on the Internet — market power, privacy, security and social equity.

This paper examines the spectrum of arguments for and against zero-rating. It analyzes each issue from the perspective of developing countries — countries with market conditions vastly different from those of Europe or the Americas in terms of connectivity, affordability, quality of service and availability of relevant content for users.

The Global Commission on Internet Governance was established in January 2014 to articulate and advance a strategic vision for the future of Internet governance. The two-year project conducts and supports independent research on Internet-related dimensions of global public policy, culminating in an official commission report that will articulate concrete policy recommendations for the future of Internet governance.