A raging debate has been building up over the last few years over the merits, if any, of allowing certain services that are deemed “essential” to be accessible to users for free i.e. at a zero-rated cost which means users being able to access such services regardless of whether they have a data subscription or not. This has usually involved entering partnerships between the service(s) in question and mobile network operators around the world who are the gatekeepers of the people intended to be reached. It’s something that got Facebook into hot water. Another high profile player, Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit responsible for the world’s largest free online resource, Wikipedia, has largely been spared the same scrutiny accorded to the world’s largest social network. Until now.
“After careful evaluation, the Wikimedia Foundation has decided to discontinue one of its partnership approaches, the Wikipedia Zero program. Wikipedia Zero was created in 2012 to address one barrier to participating in Wikipedia globally: high mobile data costs. Through the program, we partnered with mobile operators to waive mobile data fees for their customers to freely access Wikipedia on mobile devices. Over the course of this year, no additional Wikipedia Zero partnerships will be formed, and the remaining partnerships with mobile operators will expire,” a statement posted on the Wikimedia Foundation blog last Friday reads.
Unlike Facebook, the Wikimedia Foundation, as already stated, is a non-profit and other than providing access to Wikipedia, there’s not much else in the way of platform-lock, something that Facebook was often accused of when it debuted Internet.org and even now with the Free Basics platform. So, what’s up with the Wikimedia Foundation shuttering Wikipedia Zero which is responsible for providing access to the online encyclopedia to 800 million people in 72 countries?
From the look of things, we might not be able to know exactly why Wikipedia Zero is being let go after 6 years in operation. Is it the never-ending net neutrality concerns? Is it the lack of partners? A part of the Wikimedia Foundation’s statement announcing the end of the road of Wikipedia Zero may give us a slight hint: “Since 2016, we have seen a significant drop off in adoption and interest in the program. This may be due, in part, to the rapidly shifting mobile industry, as well as changes in mobile data costs.”
Orange Kenya, now Telkom Kenya, was the first Kenyan mobile network operator to partner with the Wikimedia Foundation to provide free access to Wikipedia to its subscribers under the Wikipedia Zero program when it launched 6 years ago. Another mobile network operator, Airtel Kenya, would join the program a year later in October 2013.
Mobile network operator Safaricom’s head of corporate communications, Mary-Anne Kui Kinyanjui, is expected to take over as the Wikimedia Foundation’s vice president of communication next month.
While it is true that data costs today are much lower than they were when the program debuted in 2012, for those that had gotten hooked to having free access to Wikipedia, they’ll have to either learn to live without it or part with small amounts for data subscriptions.