Users’ Perspectives on Zero Rating in Myanmar and Implications for Net Neutrality

This post was written by Peter Cihon, Google Policy Fellow, LIRNEasia

Zero-rated promotions, including Facebook Free Basics, pose controversial challenges to net neutrality around the world. This debate has presented empirical questions that remain largely unanswered. Do users remain within the corporate-controlled walled garden, or do they freely exit and use the open internet? Does zero rating limit users’ perceptions of all the internet can offer? Such questions motivated our research in Myanmar to understand users’ perspectives on zero rating.

Researchers from LIRNEasia, a think tank working on ICT policy and regulation in the emerging Asia Pacific, completed fieldwork in July 2016. With funding from Mozilla, the Google Policy Fellowship program, UK Government’s Department for International Development, and the International Development Research Centre, Canada, we conducted focus group discussions with 63 mobile users and informal interviews with vendors and stakeholders across the Yangon Region. Important findings from our research are presented below; please see the full report for further analysis.

Using Zero-Rated Content

Two ongoing zero-rated promotions are the focus of our study: Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) Free Basics, which launched in June 2016, and Telenor Free Facebook and Viber, which launched a month later. MPT Free Basics includes Facebook Flex, an image- and video-free version of Facebook, Messenger, Burmese Wikipedia, WikiHow, resources from UNICEF’s Internet of Good Things, and several local websites (see chart below). Telenor Free offers a 150MB daily data allowance to access Facebook with pictures and video, as well as unlimited Viber messages. While Free Basics is available to anyone with an MPT SIM card, Telenor Free lasts for a limited duration that increases with the amount of credit purchased.

Key Findings

1. Respondents are largely unaware of free content on Free Basics other than Facebook and Messenger

Although some 40 respondents report having used Free Basics, only four know of non-Facebook content within the platform. Respondents only actively use Facebook and Messenger on Free Basics.

2. Those who have used Free Basics use it infrequently; over half have stopped altogether in favor of paid data

Many respondents have stopped using Free Basics because of frustrations with a lack of photos and video on the free version of Facebook, slow data speeds, and an onerous user interface for switching back and forth between paid and free content.

3. Zero-rated content presents data-cost management strategies for users

Respondents pursue sophisticated data-cost management strategies that include using multiple SIMs, switching carriers for promotions, and using zero-rated services to access content for which they would otherwise pay. Several respondents use Free Basics regularly to manage data expenses by using free Messenger exclusively or limiting certain Facebook activity to free mode. Some Telenor Free users continue browsing Facebook by switching to MPT Free Basics after exhausting their daily free data cap on Telenor.

4. Contrasting user experience and content lead to different uses across zero-rated content promotions

In contrast to Free Basics, all respondents who tried Telenor Free continue to use it, and several have switched to Telenor from MPT for the new promotion. Users emphasize the appeal of free full-feature Facebook, and this content leads nearly all users to increase data consumption. Notably, several rural users began watching video for the first time on the promotion, and now use their entire free 150MB allotment each day.

5. Telenor Free ‘on-ramps’ respondents to paid consumption, but not to the open internet

Most Telenor Free users describe increasing data consumption and paying for this increase, but they only use the data to access Facebook.

6. Respondents commonly exit the zero-rated walled garden, but few distinguish between the walled garden and open internet

Most active zero-rated-content users also use other, non-subsidized internet services, including Google, news websites, and apps. Respondents describe following links from within Facebook to external websites. Exiting the walled garden is more common among urban respondents, but most rural respondents who use zero-rated content also use other applications online, commonly BeeTalk and Clash of Clans.

This behavior contrasts with perceptions: respondents often do not distinguish between zero-rated content and the open internet. The limitations of Facebook on MPT Free Basics serve to highlight the garden walls: respondents know when they are using zero-rated content or not. But the same cannot be said for Telenor Free. Several users—both urban and rural—describe the 150MB Facebook allotment on Telenor as general-use data.

7. For some respondents, Facebook is the internet

Although the contrast between free and paid Facebook on MPT is clear, users do not universally distinguish between Facebook—or other apps, for that matter—and the open internet. While urban respondents distinguish between the two, several rural respondents equate Facebook with the internet. This is observed, for example, as internet search for them means searching within Facebook.

8. Respondents are not satisfied with a perceived second-class internet

Given the choice between zero rating, limited data to access unrestricted content, or unlimited access to unrestricted content but at slow speeds, respondents prefer unrestricted content. Respondents express frustration at slow Wi-Fi and data speeds. Frustrations with limitations on Free Basics and the launch of an alternative with free full-content Facebook led several respondents to switch from MPT to Telenor.

MPT Free Basics Websites*
Website Local Content Burmese Language Respondents Know Of Respondents Use
Facebook Flex
Facebook Messenger
7 Day Daily (news)
Connect Smart
Free Books by Worldreader
Mathematics by TeachMe.com
Girl Effect
ShweProperty.com
JobNet.com.mm
All in-By and for Adolescents
Baby Center
WikiHow
Emergency Information
Facts for Life
MayMay (women’s health)

* at time of fieldwork