Currently the world over is talking about Net neutrality especially after Facebook has seen serious resistance in India and Egypt over their Free Basic service amid fears that the social network company is entirely violating some Net Neutrality policies.
By Toneo Tonderai Rutsito
Basically Net Neutrality as the name states is all about creating a neutral internet, this concept internationally advocates for fair internet traffic treatment. Net Neutrality states that internet traffic should be treated and charged the same, be it browsing YouTube videos or WhatsApp messages, Facebook or browsing online.. Internet Service Providers (ISP)should simply treat this as online data without giving any preferences to a specific service.
A Zimbabwean Example:
A very good example coming back home is to have the City council or Zesa charging you or supplying water differently depending on what you need to use it for. Imagine if it could cost you more get ZESA for watching your TV while it’s cheaper for cooking simply because someone has decided to call TV luxury and cooking a priority.
Maybe the example could backfire on me if the city fathers would charge you lower rates for toilet water and higher rates for drinking one. If this seems justifiable then you fully understand the term Net Neutrality and this has been the war that’s currently trending world over.
Who should adhere to Net Neutrality.
Personally this where I think the whole Net Neutrality agenda may have lost it. In the USA they have been a series of court challenges as various service providers have contested against the Net Neutrality. Ultimately, Net Neutrality is meant to guide telecommunication and Internet service Providers not solution or platform providers like Facebook.
Why Zimbabweans Must Care.
Maybe sooner or later things may get worse especially because access to broadband is now very high across all cities and towns in Zimbabwe. What if one day you are charged so much more for accessing Facebook or WhatsApp simply because it’s too popular. What did we do as a nation about WhatsApp calling in Zimbabwe, which had been constricted or blocked by most ISPs since it was launched.
If we were in America, Probably all these cheap social network bundles would have been banned. Ironically Zimbabwe subscribes to the international telecommunications Union (ITU) which also advocates for Net Neutrality.
Here is a real tricky question. What if your own local app, website or video gets priority. I have personally advocated for free access to local websites and content to help develop our growing digital sector. Would that not be a good thing and a violation of the same Net Netrality as well.
What if flashing water was going to be accessed at a quarter price or free simply because it does not need much purification than drinking water, would this not be a valid excuse from the city fathers and as well make like cheaper for everyone?
What if someone says here are free critical educational and health services that you can now access for free as Zimbabweans nationwide and all you need is a smartphone?
This is exactly what Facebook is trying to do and all hell has broken loose!
What is Happening to Facebook?
Facebook launched their own service which initially was supposed to be the internet.org, which basically was going to provide free internet access via their own drones. We don’t know what changed, but all of a sudden, maybe in deployment, Facebook has now dropped its own drones and has been working with local ISPs to provide free internet access to only “certain websites”
Facebook has already deployed this service called FreeBasics to 37 African countries but there has been mass resistance in India and Egypt and both Facebook and Net Neutrality lobbysts have sent millions of petitions against each other to the government.
Mark Zuckerbag argued that :“In every society, there are certain basic services that are so important for people’s well being that we expect everyone to be able to access them freely.
We have collections of free basic books. They’re called libraries. They don’t contain every book, but they still provide a world of good.
We have free basic healthcare. Public hospitals don’t offer every treatment, but they still save lives.
We have free basic education. Every child deserves to go to school.
And in the 21st century, everyone also deserves access to the tools and information that can help them to achieve all those other public services, and all their fundamental social and economic rights.”
Facebook`s FreeBasic offered itself, its Messenger service, Wikipedia, educational resources, health info, news, job listings and in some cases, Google Search results pages (but not click-throughs to the webpages). But Facebook received heavy criticism for controlling what qualified for free access, excluding most of the Internet, not offering competitors such as Twitter, and masquerading as the Internet itself.
Net Nuetrality organisations have said Facebook is not the intenet and the Internet is not Facebook. They blame Facebook for riding on other people`s network at their cost and infrastructure. Facebook is also opening only critical website.
The perspectives break down to Zuckerberg wanting to help the poor of India now, while his adversaries seek to avoid potential misuse of power in the future
But is all traffic Equal.
Ask anyone who cares to know, voice and video are not the same. The argument can be murkier in as much as text and pictures are also different. With the emergence of local video content players like Po Box , Tonight With Zororo and TechMag.Tv, who knows maybe one day ISPs will charge more to access these websites since they are purely video and will demand a lot from service providers compared to normal text browsing.
Liquid Telecom and TelOne have been rumoured to be working towards their own video on demand services. These are basically locally accessible TV stations via the internet. Unlike the traditional TVs that give you their programming, you can search and choose what you want to watch at any given moment at a certain fee.
The question is will these service providers allow you to watch YouTube or Netflix videos unlimited over their network for free while their own services are being compromised on bandwidth. This is another hot issue in the United States Of America where Net Neutrality is also in violation of business interests.
VoIP over Voice Calls.
Zimbabwe Mobile Network Operators MNOs have been delivering poor voice over the internet services which costs close to nothing to call because they want you to use their GSM network portal not the internet for calls because traditionally this was their only revenue source. Was this a violation of Net Neutrality when all other IP based services were successfully going through.
Does the government has to regulate competition at that level?
So the question is do we need our Local Potraz to also regulate how traffic should be charged and compared depending on various circumstances on ground, or all internet content should be charged equally.
Thankfully or is it sad enough in Zimbabwe the problem is not relevant mainly because we are still being charged by various speeds and maximum bandwidth caps. Why would anyone buy slow speeds of internet and small caps in this fibre age, who needs little and slow internet anywhere.
First and foremost, the Federal commission in the United States requires that ISPs publicly disclose all their network management practices, so that users can make informed decisions when purchasing internet service. That means they’d have to say what speeds it offers, what types of applications would work over that speed, how it inspects traffic, and so on. It does not necessarily mean that those disclosures will be understandable by non-tech savvy individuals
Mobile ISPs are still prohibited from blocking services on the web that compete directly with their own, but they can continue to discriminate—which means that at any given point, you could find an internet service blocked or deliberately slowed down when accessing it from your smartphone.
This has always been happening to Whatsapp calling in Zimbabwe and we do not know where else it would be applicable.
All these can become more relevant in Zimbabwe with emergence of successful local players. Simply because most of our content creators are still newbies and novice does not guarantee that we may not need to create the proper frameworks. Things will surely change and sour when one of these emerging players become a force to reckon with before ISPs are now seeing an opportunity to increase their revenues as well, due to data demands and only then will all hell break loose.
Thank Goodness Net Neutrality is not a law, and we do not have it under our statutes. I think it would be best we look into it as a standard to perfect and develop our mobile and data penetration not as a tool that ultimately guides us. Our ecosystem in Zimbabwe demands that access to popular social networks be given priority as we increase our data penetration and hence the bigger picture is national data access.
Of course debates may arise of what people are really browsing online, whether its beneficial or mere chatting and entertainment but access to the platform is primary, the internet is a gateway and how one access it is pretty much personal.
Moreover, it is proven that a direct increase of 10% national broadband penetration is proportional to 1% GDP growth rate hence one law fits all may not be applicable in the developing world scenario as we need to promote internet access based on what is popular and not what is available online, then users will discover more thereafter.