By: Kwami Ahiabenu,II
The Internet revolution is making the world a better place. Since its birth in the 1950s, the Internet has become a ubiquitous global system of interconnected computer systems that use Internet protocol suites (TCP/IP) to connect billions of devices worldwide and provide countless online services.
In recent years ‘net neutrality’ is in the news. Professor Tim Wu coined this term in 2003, to express the idea that “internet service providers (ISPs) and governments should treat all data transactions on the internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment or modes of communication. This is to say that Internet users should enable access to all content and applications running on the Internet irrespective of the source, and access to particular products or websites should not be blocked as well.
When Net Neutrality is respected, there is no blocking of content, no throttling (intentionally slows down some content or speeds up others), and no paid prioritisation where some services are stuck in a “slow lane” because they do not pay a special fee.
One Service, Free Basics (the new name for internet.org), is receiving a lot of criticism from internet activists across the world, with India banning them for the violation of net neutrality principles by offering free access to selected online content and services and putting others to a disadvantage by causing unfair competition. Free Basics, which is available in 37 countries including Ghana, aims at increasing access for low-income customers by allowing them to create a Facebook account on their devices and also access a limited set of internet services at no charge. Both Wikipedia Zero and Google Free Zone are other examples of zero rating services.
Some benefits of not upholding Net neutrality
Price differentiation, improving economic efficiency, increase in broadband penetration, reduction in customer costs and the provision of essential services to the poor who cannot afford access can all be stated as some of the advantages of not upholding the net neutrality principle.
In support of Net Neutrality
According to President Barack Obama You “don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to various users,” “You want to leave it open so that the next Google or the next Facebook can succeed.” Conventionally it is not just possible for a smaller firm to compete with established companies such as Facebook when they are able to offer services based on discriminatory data tariffs. Furthermore this situation creates barriers to entry and a non-level playing field for other players especially start-ups thereby stifling innovation.
Throwing net neutrality out of the window means a whole set of users (out of the same window) because then, they are considered as spammers, scammers, and phishers, with other “bad” Internet citizens excluded from sending mail through certain web mails.
Also violation of Net Neutrality can lead to an outright block of country-level IP addresses, which affects countries in West Africa, including Ghana because of the prevalence of “scammers”.
In many emerging markets, a new generation of messaging apps such as WhatsApp are threatening SMS revenues while Voice Over IP (VOIP) is eating away voice revenue. <$> A predictable reaction is to break net neutrality principles by setting up differential pricing in order to protect dwindling fortunes of the operators but this does not serve the interest of consumers.
Is Net Neutrality a Myth?
Some persons argue that we should not be discussing net neutrality in Africa, or in Ghana, because it is the preserve of persons with high speed internet access who do not have the access challenges which are the bane of most users on the continent. However, internet access is constantly improving; and net neutrality will increasingly become more and more important an issue to grapple with in Africa.
At the end of the day, it is important not to create a two-tier Internet-one for the haves and the other for the have-nots. Breaking Net Neutrality can lead to control and censorship of Internet content which does not augur well for openness on the Internet. When the principle of net neutrality starts to be eroded, it should be of grave concern to everyone because it has the tendency of creating walls instead and hindering open Internet as per its original design.
The writer is the Executive Director of Penplusbytes.org – you can follow him on twitter at www.twitter.com/kwamigh; WhatsApp: 0241995737