On 8th February, 2015, Internet users celebrated news that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India had passed regulation prohibiting ISPs from discriminating access to data services based on content”.
This directive follows similar developments in the U.S, E.U, Chile et al, and is a huge milestone in the fight for Net Neutrality: the principle that ISPs should treat all Internet traffic the same way.
Meanwhile, Net Neutrality issues are not unique to India. In fact, Internet.org, or FreeBasics, which featured prominently in India's debate is running in 50 other developing countries. Further, South Africa is currently embroiled in debate around Over The Top Services, (OTT), and Colombia, Uganda and other countries still offer differentiated prices for WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.
Unsurprisingly, the Net Neutrality debate has generated serious interest recently, with a lot of disinformation being circulated by critics, some going as far as suggesting that Net Neutrality advocates just hate Facebook. This couldn't be further from the truth.
It's in light of these facts that I thought an article on the subject: specifically one articulating what is broken; what is at stake, and how India's success can be replicated in developing countries is fitting.
Naturally, to understand Net Neutrality requires understanding the Internet and its tenets, which can't be complete without a history lesson. So let's start from 20 years ago.
Early Developments of the Internet
In 1996, only 1.3% of the world population was online. Today, the Internet boasts more than 3.2 billion users, or (40%) of the world's population. This phenomenal growth has been possible, because the Internet has unleashed innovation, enabled growth, and inspired freedom more extensively than any other technological advancement. Facebook's astronomical growth from nothing in 2002 to U$50bn in assets today attest to this fact. Google, which dethroned Altavista in search and Ebay which prevailed on Walmart in retail all support this idea.
Indeed, if Myspace, Altavista and other giants at the time were offered protectionism, Facebook, Google and Amazon wouldn't be the giants we know today.
It comes as no surprise therefore, that India's Net Neutrality advocates posit that the unfair practices by Facebook, Uber et al, only impede India's shift from a back office country to an innovative one.
This argument will resonate with many other countries that dream of producing the next big innovation.
So what is at stake?
When ISPs are allowed to charge differently for services such as Skype and WhatsApp; when content providers are allowed to negotiate deals like FreeBasics, or ISPs are allowed to charge content providers for priority access, innovation, and Internet freedoms are undermined. Here is how:
Innovation is stifled, and local players are elbowed out when giants like Facebook, et al, are allowed to negotiate for protectionism with ISPs. We saw this when Facebook negotiated a differentiated plan for FreeBasics with more than 50 ISPs around the world.
Undoubtedly, Google, Facebook and Amazon are Internet giants today. However, if in their nascent days, the Internet didn't afford them the same freedom to innovate as it did their predecessors, they wouldn't be the giants they are today.
Experts predict that the next big innovation will come from the developing world. Frankly this will be difficult, if not impossible if local innovators are not allowed the right to favorably compete with incumbents.
The fight for Net Neutrality is the fight to preserve this right!
Freedom of Choice
When the menu from which an ISP serves access is biased towards certain services, users are hoodwinked into choosing what they would normally not choose, passing on what they would normally need. This practice undermines freedom of choice, one of the tenets of the Internet.
Further, once ISPs build the capacity to implement service differentiation, the threat to free speech and Internet censorship becomes real.
Abuse and Censorship
For example: In 2013, Comcast, a U.S ISP slowed down access to Netflix for Comcast Internet users, to arm-twist Netflix into paying for a differentiated service (fast lane). Netflix users on Comcast got unprecedented speed boosts after protracted negotiations ended in Netflix acquiescing to its terms.
Needless to say, this very disconcerting incident would never have happened if the U.S had regulations to forbid this at the time (it does now).
What's even more unsettling is the fact that this loophole still exists in many countries today.
It shouldn't surprise you therefore that ISPs in South Africa wants to charge for Over The Top Services, only months after India faced and defeated this same issue.
What can you do?
Because Net Neutrality violations take different shapes and forms in different countries, a one-size fits all solution doesn't exist. In fact, regulations passed in India differs from those in the U.S and E.U.
It goes without saying that a "think global; act local" mindset is required if we hope to maintain a Neutral Internet.
Moreover, to cause this kind of change, the value of user involvement can't be overstated. India's victory over Facebook is instructive here: India's Internet users prevailed over Facebook's campaign which included Front Page Ads, billboards, and lobbying politicians, including the Prime Minister.
I think many countries can learn from this.
Similarly, in 2014, Obama personally credited the favorable Net Neutrality ruling by the FCC on "...millions of Americans across the country [who] didn't just care about this issue," but who stood up and made their voices heard. Hearing this, I was reminded of the African proverb: "If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito."
If the masses in U.S and India could fight large corporate interests and win, I think it can be done elsewhere.
As more and more countries engage regulators in passing laws against discrimination on the Internet, it is imperative that developing countries disabuse themselves of the notion of free lunches. Africa particularly has seen enough of this: where short term needs are satiated at the cost of long term good. The next time an ISP offers free service, you should question why.
Indeed the toll of shortsightedness on developing nations is well documented in history. It will be a shame on us if we stand by and let it happen again.
I hope this motivates and propels someone into action.
By Douglas Onyango, ICT Consultant & Internet Governance leader from Africa
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