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Thursday, September 21, 2017

The price of free: why there's no digital free lunch for zero rating or messaging

I've been thinking recently about the re-regulatory moves both in wider market analysis and narrowly in platform regulation (inspired by the un-improvable if somewhat justifiable morally panicked Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017).
I also recently gave many newspaper interviews on a trip to Bogota about why regulators (and politicians) find it so difficult to refuse consumers a free lunch when offered it via zero rating. The unintended side effect is that many poorer consumers, especially in developing markets, get their "news" via snippets on Facebook, not clicking through due to data charges to the hideously bloatware-infected news sites themselves. Not only does this prevent payment for journalism, but more importantly it has the effect of inflating the importance of fake news to the economically (well, digitally) disenfranchised. Digital colonialism, in fact.
More broadly, the 'hipster antitrust' movement (if such it is) has addressed the manifest and myriad failings of the information market, notably the huge market power of such behemoths as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. The organised lobbying and policy development resistance of the giants to the charges laid are impressively well marshalled intellectually.
The most obvious example of predation by these giants, and regulators' failure to respond appropriately, has been that of Facebook's merger with WhatsApp. Not coincidentally, these are the exact companies to most benefit from the sponsoring of a select few social media apps by mobile operators keen to turn their users on to some data use where uncapped plans are beyond the reach of users in developing countries. The enabler for that Facebook control over zero rated content has been Wikipedia, an apparently 'public service' media organisation which may be non-profit but is run by arch-libertarian Jimmy Wales. The use of Wikipedia to "zero wash" the business model of Facebook has come to prominence as part of the zero rating debate.
Facebook owns WhatsApp, which is the world's most popular free instant messaging app, in part because it has no advertising nor secondary or premium models. Therefore it has no revenues and no business plan at all. Facebook also owns the second most globally popular IM app, FBK Messenger. Thus its purchase of WhatsApp can only be seen as a defensive vertical and horizontal merger of social networking platform with downstream rival IM app. Absurdly the merger was approved subject to it making Facebook no money - because user data from WhatsApp was to be fenced off from Facebook's advertising business. When Facebook blatantly breached these merger terms in 2016, the EC promised ot take action to prevent that. WhatsApp is thus a pure value destruction play - FBK stating "we can't make money but nor can anyone else from IM". Try leveraging into social medfia networks from that, start-ups!

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