The Wikimedia Foundation has announced that the Wikipedia Zero program will end in 2018.
Wikipedia Zero began in 2012 and was an attempt by the Wikimedia Foundation to offer users in developing countries free access to Wikipedia. The program was criticized by advocates of net neutrality for undermining the principles of an open internet and the notion that all data should be treated equally.
Wikipedia Zero has established relationships with 97 cellular carriers in 72 countries and, in an official release on Wikimedia’s website, claims to have opened access to an additional 800 million users.
Wikimedia cited two reasons for ending the program: the declining costs of mobile access in developing countries and low awareness of Wikipedia outside of North America and Europe.
According to data published by the Alliance for an Affordable Internet, mobile data costs have fallen as a percentage of average income in African countries from 12.5 percent in 2015 to 9.3 percent in 2016.
While the overall trend is positive, in some countries like Zimbabwe and Malawi, the cost of 1GB of mobile data is still over 20% of income.
In research conducted in 2016, the Wikimedia Foundation also discovered that many people in countries like India, Mexico and Nigeria are unaware that Wikipedia exists, never mind how to use it. This prompted the foundation to launch a number of campaigns with the objective of raising awareness of Wikipedia.
The foundation reports that it increased awareness by 30% in Iraq and formed a number of partnerships in Nigeria which helped introduce 15 million people to Wikipedia for the first time.
Wikipedia isn’t the only to offer zero-rating services through partnerships with cellular carriers. Both Facebook and Google have similar offerings and, unlike the Wikimedia Foundation, both have a commercial incentive to do so.
Net-neutrality advocates argue that the emergence of zero-rating services risk creating a two tier internet that causes damage to local innovation in favour of creating a bias towards already established services thousands of miles away.
Rather than extending access, advocates argue zero-rating services merely cement the position of dominant organisations and undermine the future of the open internet.