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Net Neutrality unboxed: What proponents in Zimbabwe fail to appreciate

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Lately there has been increased interest, interference, regulation and policy pronouncements in the Zimbabwean telecommunications arena; while some of these initiatives at face value seem beneficial to the consumer, there is need to unpack them to understand their import in terms of the possible ulterior motives. In this piece I will focus on the proposed drive for net neutrality.

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Net neutrality, on paper and theoretically, is a good and just approach that allows for internet users to access internet services (applications or websites) at the same tariff or rate, indiscriminate of the website or application they access. It’s almost a type of digital democracy ensuring fair unsubsidised access to all sites.

The obvious challenge that net neutrality advocacy will bring service providers, particularly mobile networks, will be that these businesses have been introducing various internet service specific bundles and promotions in order to encourage use, drive revenues and encourage customer loyalty. Examples of the type of bundles would be Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp bundles across all networks under different promotional brand names.

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This article will attempt to unpack the ethical, commercial and consumer impact the pursuit of internet equality will have.

No two internet services are the same – social responsibility

Net neutrality or equality is about ensuring no single site gets favourable or discounted treatment. This poses a challenge as no two sites are the same in terms of importance and social impact. Take for instance Econet’s zero-rated, free sites, like the ones they made accessible for tertiary institutions which an Econet subscriber can access for free. This social responsibility initiative makes immediate sense but unfortunately flies in the face of what net neutrality is about.

The idea that some sites are more equal than others is hardly debatable. Sites offering medical services, educational information and social responsibility initiatives are deserving candidates for preferential treatment. Net neutrality will mean service providers and mobile network operators (MNOs) will no longer be able to offer corporate social responsibility by zero-rating or discounting certain internet offerings.

Greater good for the greatest number

Another challenge net neutrality proponents in Zimbabwe fail to appreciate is that the suspended data, social media and internet bundles are actually meant for the benefit of the majority. Numbers are an important consideration in any political system that is premised on democracy.

Net equality advocates argue that WhatsApp, FaceBook and Twitter are the main beneficiaries of the bundles as they are offered cheaply via bundles which is true and for good reason. MNOs selected these services for their bundles based on usage and popularity.

Net equality promoters have argued that the MNOs haven’t conducted a proper research into the usage of these services and, at any rate, the customers might want to access other sites so the only reason they seem to like these services is because these are the only ones on promotion. This is a fallacy. MNOs have based their bundles on research, not a survey but actually on analytics which show them which sites are being visited frequently by users and with what type of device, and to an extent from which location.

MNOs are in business to turn a profit and their for-profit design means that they follow the money which means following the numbers. MNOs base their product and promotional offerings on demand and the classic definition of marketing is meeting consumer needs profitably so it is actually the consumers who have been clamouring for internet service specific bundles.  

The market system

Net neutrality goes against the very grain of a free market system determining pricing and preference. Currently the proposed net neutrality is the direct opposite of a free market system. The moment we have the state controlling prices, we are gravitating towards a socialist intent. Zimbabwe’s present over regulated environment characterised by price and tariff controls are all pointing to a centralised production system that has the government controlling all enterprises away from a decentralised capitalist approach.

I worry deeply about the continued interference by government in decisions that should be taken by corporates and consumers through a bargaining system which self-regulates the pricing regime via supply and demand.

Net neutrality silences the poor

The biggest and perhaps most important consequence of net neutrality is that the similar pricing of all sites will mean that sites that had become affordable thanks to being subsided under bundles and bonus promotions will become expensive, effectively pricing out the voices of most netizens or digital citizens that had become accustomed to using the  various social and digital platforms to air their concerns to their government.

Perhaps my reading is mischievous but digital democracy needs social and digital platforms to be affordable and accessible so by introducing net neutrality few will be able to voice their concerns as has been the case with the various social and digital campaigns like #ThisFlag, #ThisGown and #Tajamuka. My biggest fear is that in clamoring for net neutrality we might unwittingly play into the hands of a government that wants to put a dollar price on the freedom of speech.

In our naiveté let’s not allow the over regulation and control of a relationship that should be governed by consumer wants and needs negotiated between consumers and corporates to be run by the government.


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11 thoughts on “Net Neutrality unboxed: What proponents in Zimbabwe fail to appreciate

  1. it’s hard to argue against the benefits of subsidised internet, especially in Africa, because they are real. A little access is better than no access at all.

    All the arguments are true but the problems are in closing out commercial space to other internet companies in favour of Facebook, WhatsApp etc… Or Worse, closing it out in favour of the MNOs own internet startups. As is the case with Econet’s Ownai, which has preferential treatment over, say classifieds.co.zw, despite the latter being more popular (and as a marketplace, therefore potentially more useful to internet users).

    A few models have been proposed so that the benefits of subsidised internet are retained with a neutral internet. See this for example: http://www.techzim.co.zw/2015/12/zero-rating-and-net-neutrality-proposal-steve-song/#.V6ryr7h9600

    It’s no so much that the good things bundling has brought should be taken away, but more how we can achieve them with a neutral internet so that the bundling is not abused by gatekeepers. Abuse that is already happening as we speak.

    1. L.S.M Kabweza, i hear your argument and my point is while sound on paper and possibly sound if implemented perfectly I feel for the reasons mentioned in the article above that we wont really empower anyone (locally) in the real sense by making internet costs the same even for services that are debate-ably popular.

      I propose we allow market forces to continue to play themselves out while we look at a holistic way of driving the price of internet services down.

  2. I still feel strongly that equal rating is the way. Lets see what the numbers say after that. The very nature and principle of the internet is access, to limit it is going against the idea of it

  3. Sorry but you are wrong in one important aspect. The MNO didn’t do any research to choose whatsapp or facebook, rather those two companies offered an incentive for them to offer bundles.

    Similarly Net Neutrality does not silence the poor. Having the poor believe that Whats App is the internet, and having the poor on a single service the government can block during troubled time DEFINATELY does.

    Net neutrality would mean rather than offering a bundle for Whats App, offer an affordable data bundle and let me chose which service I wish to use: BBM, weChat, SnapChat, instagram, heck I may even use Hi5 or AIM if I am feeling retro. It makes zero difference to the bandwidth for MNOs, but it means they can’t double charge if I want whats app and a data bundle, and tey loose the incentive (read double payment) from Whats App and Facebook.

    1. Amen!
      It’s rather silly to accept as research that the first hundred people that used their data used Whatsapp so everyone must use Whatsapp to benefit from reasonable data rates.
      It’s a lazy man’s marketing and simplistic view on democracy.

      The only reason MNOs prefer bundles is to give the false sense of a promotion and shamelessly profiteer from the outliers that prefer to browser what they want when they want.

  4. a neutral internet is the best way forward. the reason why the internet is expensive & affordable is because of inefficiencies in the internet service provider market

    so creating facebook/whatsapp bundles as a means to provide internet access to the masses is an easy way for the internet service providers not to solve the inefficiencies in their industry that is causing them not to offer an affordable product to the market

    its the same reason why monopolies are not efficient

  5. All internet traffic is equal and should be considered so. Those that advocate for social media bundles just want cheaper services for THEIR wants (they are far from needs). Social media activities are generally unproductive, watching funny videos, liking and reposting things. Besides that, not everyone is on Whatsapp, FB or Twitter, but I use Google, Stackoverflow and Medium a lot, so why should I be marginalised? The costs of the internet traffic for Whatsapp and FB bundles is probably being shouldered by those of us who are paying a premium to access the REAL Internet. The #ThisAnThat argument doesn’t really hold in support of net neutrality. People who want to organise a march/demonstration/stayaway do not look at the price of their data first, they just push forward as best they can. Poor people have always had a voice, what they need is someone to listen…

  6. Giving preferential treatment to Facebook and WhatsApp leads to a scenario where the Internet for majority is WhatsApp and Facebook. This leads to less appreciation of things like e-commerce and e-learning. The Internet must be seen as one of the major Drivers of economic growth and to achieve that we must not kill innovation by preferring the already successful platforms or the MNOs platforms over others. There will be no incentive for people to try other services offered by startups as the only data they will subscribe to is for WhatsApp and facebook. MNOs must just lower the rates simple and let the people choose the services they want to use.

  7. My word, this article is pure hogwash and too simplistic. It does not look at the long term effects of these social media bundles on the IT industry itself.
    It is now pointless for a company to have a website of its own, instead it makes more sense to have a Facebook page.
    It is pointless for any business that cannot negotiate for its own media bundles with the MNOs to develop an app for their services.
    Consequently it is pointless for Developers in Zimbabwe, who have no intent to move out of the country to learn or even focus on mobile app development.
    It is only a matter of time before marketing departments of companies come to the realisation that their website is serving no purpose at all.

    All the above problems are due to our very own MNOs directing all internet traffic to just 3 services, and their own Zero-Rated ones. Talk about potential jobs to be lost due to our own failure to stimulate the development of our own services.
    Think about the several great ideas in this country that will never take out to compete in the market due to Facebook and WhatsApp et al, talk about the potential such services have to even export into the rest of Africa, which they will never do since their growth is stifled during their infantile stages of development.
    Net neutrality is the way to go for our local industry. All we need is cheaper internet which is not directed to specific services.

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