By Antony Mutunga
There was one issue on which there seemed to be almost unanimity: The Internet should not be managed by any government, national or multinational – Jon Postel
Remember the days when communication through handwritten letters was the norm? When the only option was to visit a brick and mortar store when you needed goods or services? When physical books were the main source of information and were not easily accessible? Well, to many, these are the good old days that are now turning to nothing but fading memories.
This is all as a result of the Internet, which has been one of the most important and influential inventions in the world. Since its start in the mid-1960s, the Internet has grown from a few interconnected computers to become an indispensable part of people’s life in today’s world. It has now become a global phenomenon with more than half of the global population, 3.8 billion people according to a report by Internet world stats, using it on their day to day activities; from purchasing goods and services online to using it to easily access information.
However, not many know that they are able to access all this different content as a result of net neutrality – a principle that ensures that internet users are free to access all legal online content equally without having internet service providers blocking or discriminating it. This basically means that the ISPs have no control over what a user does on the internet.
This is the way the Internet has always been ever since it was introduced to the world however, now in some countries this is coming under threat. For instance, in the U.S the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is in charge of regulating interstate communications, recently voted to roll back the Title II net neutrality rules that were passed in 2015 during Obama’s tenure as president.
Another example would be Portugal where net neutrality seems to have been completely abandoned and now citizens are at the mercy of the ISPs. They have integrated what is known as zero rating and split the internet into different packages. As a result, this has given the ISPs the power to steer Internet users towards their preferred websites and applications. This puts the open Internet at risk and even though such cases are small in number now, they are slowly gaining momentum.
Those who are opposing net neutrality, ISPs mostly, argue that doing away with net neutrality will allow room for more innovation. They go on to state that some services require channels that are free of congestion in order to be able to innovate more although, this is not completely true as even with net neutrality they are still able to create dedicated channels to help them. In addition, the scrapping of net neutrality will cause innovation in other services to suffer.
Opposers also argue that they will be able to protect average users from the power users. Power users are those users that engage with gigabytes of data on a regular basis as compared to average users that engage with less. ISPs suggest that power users hog bandwidth resources from the average users. Thus to be able to control this, they propose the net neutrality principle to be put down so as they can assure that everyone has an equal experience.
However, as good as these arguments seem, they are just a cover for what the ISPs really want which is to be in control and be able to charge users for equal access to online content. Other than that they also want to be able to charge companies that offer consumers equal access to their services.
This has been the case mostly for developed countries; however in other regions it has been very different, for example, in Africa the case of net neutrality seems to not be so crucial at the moment. This is because most experts believe the continent should be more concerned about internet access to everyone. Therefore, most experts believe that net neutrality is currently only a problem for the first world rather than the third world.
For instance, according to Joe Mucheru, the Kenyan Minister of Information, Communications and Technology, “Getting Africans access to the Internet is more important than defending net neutrality, which is more of a ‘First World’ problem… Focusing on it is like saying someone has no food, but if someone brings them bread we are not going to allow them to have the bread because they must have a balanced diet.”
With the internet penetration in Africa standing at less than thirty-two percent as at 2017, the experts are not wrong to advice more focus on ensuring that everyone is able to access the internet. However, at the same time there is a need to take up net neutrality laws as they are crucial to ensure that the new internet users have equal access to online content as anyone else around the world.
In order to ensure that the less fortunate have access to the Internet, organisations such as Facebook, Google and Wikipedia have come up with zero rating services such as Internet.org, Google’s Free Zone and Wikipedia Zero. These services are free and give everyone an opportunity to be able to access the internet. However, regardless of being free, these services have several demerits that go against the principle of net neutrality.
The zero rating services let new users access the internet but they are only able to do so on a number of websites. For example, Facebook’s internet.org which was in conjunction with Airtel in Africa offered free internet on applications such as Facebook. Even though this was helping increase internet access to the poor, it was at the same time hurting competition as the users become dependent only on these services and their partners, in this case, Airtel which in turn causes a slowdown in innovation.
Apart from hurting the competition, these services also risk the privacy of the users as these services are done through a monolithic portal thus all information ends up being in the hands of advertisers. In addition, this also causes a risk on free speech. With net neutrality really important to minority groups as they need an open internet to converse, the use of a monolithic portal causes this to be dangerous as the government may be able to get all the information and infringe the right of free speech on such individuals.
It is time for developing nations to start creating net neutrality laws to prepare for the future whereby almost everyone may be connected to the internet. With the FCC voting to roll-back the net neutrality rules in the U.S, the way the internet works and what people do online is about to change. It is important that other nations do not follow suite. The importance of a free and open internet is too great; it is crucial to ensure that the principle of net neutrality is upheld all over the world so that everyone has an equal access to all online content. ^