Walled Empires, Zero-Rating and Web Literacy

re:publica is like a gravity well for the Internet scene in Europe. The event grows every year and has inspired the entire city of Berlin to host fringe events as well. If you care about tech and society, then definitely come to Berlin when re:publica is in town.

I was kindly invited to share Mozilla’s perspective on web literacy, which I happily obliged. Here are my notes!


From Consumption to Creation to Participation

Today I’d like to share some reflections on what internet the next billion users will find and what we can do to ensure its a platform for them to create and participate online.

For me, this journey begins by reading Wikipedia. About a decade ago, I learned about this encyclopedia that anyone could edit.

After reading a lot of Wikipedia–mainly articles about The Simpsons–I convinced my mother to take me on the train to Frankfurt, to the first conference where the people who wrote Wikipedia were meeting for the first time.

It was an eye-opening experience. Hundreds of people were dedicated not only to creating knowledge in their own language, but they also were also passionate participants in a community and an ecosystem that fosters creation. Their ethos inspired me to dedicate my professional and personal energy to furthering participation online.

This experience for me of discovering Wikipedia took me on a journey. I first read articles. Then I learned I could write on Wikipedia. And that led me to seeing I could actively shape it as a community and open platform.

This is a powerful journey: from consumption, to creation, to participation.

Now imagine that journey today.

If say I were in India, coming online via my mobile phone, I firstly may not find much content in my native language.

And in the good cases where I may be able to have access and read knowledge in my own language, there isn’t the ability edit or and add this knowledge. Let alone for me to realize the potential to participate in protecting and improving this space.

This is the world of the mobile internet today.

At the start of this year, nearly one in three people around the globe—2.3 billion—has access to mobile broadband service. That’s double what it was just three years ago. And in the next two years, nearly another billion users will come online.

Mobile phones will be the primary way these new users will access the internet. In many ways, this is exciting. There is a path for people to improve their social and economic lives. We all know that technology is powerful and that the internet is full of opportunity.

Read-Only Internet

But what kind of Internet are these next billion users really getting? Will it interest them? Will it improve their lives? Will they be able to help shape the Internet to ensure that it does?

The mobile internet today, for the majority of new users, is not a space of creation and participation. It is not the world of permission-free protocols, of read-write of HTML, and open publishing platforms.

Instead, in many critical ways, the mobile internet toady is “read only.”

This is not just because authoring content is difficult on small screens. But because mobile content—media, apps, and services—are distributed through much more restrictive channels than the early web, or even Web 2.0.

The promise of the World Wide Web was that anyone could publish content without permission. Yet in many ways, the bar to create and distribute new apps and services is now actually rising.

Walled Empires

The main reason for this is that a very small number of platform providers hold the keys to their respective kingdoms.

The walled gardens have become walled empires.

Google can exert a huge influence on what apps are installed on Android. The same is true with Apple and iOS, and Microsoft and Windows phones.

Without permission from a platform provider, creators today can’t meaningfully get their wares onto devices.


This audience is no doubt familiar with the problems of walled gardens. There is another trend on the mobile web you may not be as familiar with.

In my opinion, it will be a huge barrier to creation and participation online. Especially for the next billion users.

This troubling trend is called zero-rating.

In many countries, mobile internet users are offered “free” content and services. They can access these services without the data charges they’d normally pay.

Facebook is the best known example of zero-rating. Using the misleading name “internet.org,” Facebook offers mobile users access to Facebook without any cost.

At first glance, access to any internet service seems like a good thing.

But millions of people think that Facebook is the Internet.

I worry that the next billion Internet users will have little to do but post on social networks and consume media using the platforms of just a handful of players.

We all here know that the internet has more to offer than Facebook. We know the risks that come with just one company shaping people’s online lives.

If you have to pay to leave the walled empire, you think twice about it. And if you never journey outside the walls, then what’s inside starts to look like the whole world to you.

When you live in someone else’s empire, your life is restricted. You are limited in what you read, and especially in how you write and participate.

This is the problem of the mobile internet today.

3 Tactics

Of course, we can act. We can make a different reality.

I’d like to share three tactics for the next billion to read, write and participate online:

  • local content
  • tools to create on mobile
  • participatory learning


1. Local content.

Have you ever tried to follow a conversation that’s in a language you don’t speak? It can be daunting, even impossible to participate if you don’t speak the language.

Online participation begins first with online consumption. You have to be able to read and listen to things in languages you understand.

But for the next billion internet users, there isn’t a lot of conversation in their native languages. There is a huge chasm between the number of people speaking a given language and the amount of content available in that language.

For example, the top ten Internet sites in India, as measured by traffic, have just two fully Indian representatives: the India Times newspaper and the mobile shopping site Flipkart. The rest are Indian versions of Google properties, Facebook, Yahoo, and Wikipedia.

You see similar trends across the globe. With the exception of China, which has enough critical mass to develop its own popular in-country online brands.

Can new languages will grab a more representative share of the content? Or non-English speakers will be further disadvantaged on the mobile internet?

Linguistically speaking, Europe as a special role to play.

Europe has the key to many of the world’s languages, such as Spanish, French, and Portuguese. It can lead the way in sharing content for those world languages

More importantly, linguistic inclusion is central to the European identity. There are many minority languages in Europe.

Europe can foster content creation in all of its member languages and lead the way in localization technologies and practices, so that more content can be readily available in more languages

At Mozilla, we see linguistic inclusion as essential. It is part of what makes Firefox different

Firefox and all of Mozilla’s products are available in many underrepresented languages. And the volunteers who contribute to localization are stewards of their language in the digital age.

With localized products, it is easier to feel comfortable when you come online. But once you are online, you need to be welcomed by great content in your language.

We all need to invest in fostering local content. Because people first need to consume comfortably in their native languages. As a first step towards creation and participation online.

This is the tactic of local content.


2. Tools to create on mobile

As a second tactic, we need to invest in creation tools for the mobile web.

Artists, businesses, schools and anyone in any city around the world should be able to easily build and control their digital presence directly from their phone. They should be able to choose the platforms they create on.

How do we implement this choice? Can we make it easy for people to create their own content and services on their devices?

In countries where full-size computers are expensive and not as common, the technology to create apps is less accessible.

Original content creation and app development on touch devices is still in its infancy. Nevermind those tools being available in the native languages of many of these users.

Vibrant digital ecosystems need the creation of information and tools, not just their consumption.

To foster online creation, we need to invest in common building blocks. The early web was successful thanks to open standards and permission-free use of its basic building blocks

Users should be able to create and publish directly to the internet from their device without membership in a social network or approval from a gatekeeper.

Their content and their apps should have the same transparency as web pages, so that anyone to learn and modify their mechanics.

At Mozilla, we’re building practical ways to make mobile content and the app economy open as the web. We want to make it easy for smartphone users to become creators of content and services.

With a tool called Webmaker, users to create custom Web content easily and quickly, no coding required. The app is free and open source, and its fun to use.

As you build with it, Webmaker reveals the key building blocks for understanding and creating the web. Webmaker is a tool for web literacy.

Building tools to create on mobile is another tactic.


3. Participatory learning

My third tactic for an online citizenry: let’s teach participatory learning.

Many studies show that you learn best by doing. If you experience and make something, that knowledge is very deep and even visceral.

My work at Mozilla is about participatory learning. The learners we work with do not just consume the web, but they actively create and participate in it.

That is how learning happens. You practice and grow the muscle of online participation through participation itself.

At Mozilla, we call it “web literacy.” This is different than “learning to code.”

Web literacy is about knowing how to read, write and participate online.

Web literacy includes knowing how to manage your privacy, collaborating with others, using open licenses, and participating in online discussion.

We see these skills learned best when people learn together and learn through making the realities they want to see. Our job is to facilitate these experiences.

Through free and open source curriculum, created and vetted by educators around the world, we have activities to teach the web even without an internet connect or very low bandwidth.

We have an open network of educators and web activists who share their best practices for teaching web literacy, and who learn together as peers to improve their craft and make a difference in their local communities.

Excitingly, we’ve launched an initiative called Mozilla Clubs, which is an open model to teach the web in a sustained, networked way.

Check out teach.mozilla.org to find free-to-use activities. It includes examples of how to empower others to not just consume, but create and participate online.

This is our shared opportunity.

To be citizens online, we need to be able to read, write and participate fully.
Today’s mobile internet we are restricted citizens.

Together, by fostering local content, by building tools that help people create online, and by teaching how to participate, we can empower full citizenship on the web.

Let’s make a web literate planet. Let’s #teachtheweb.

Learn more

Images by Laura de Reynal

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