At the Broadband Economy Conference held last month the issue of net neutrality was discussed by top executives from various relevant organisations. We then summarised what was discussed and gave links to the videos of the panel discussions and called it a day. That was premature, it turns out. A conversation I had recently made me realise that the reason not as many people were joining in the debate was that they did not have a working idea of what the issue really was. Let’s rectify that.
What is net neutrality? It is the principle that all internet traffic should be treated equally. This means ISPs and governments not discriminating or charging differentially by any criteria, be it content or user. Sadly that means those social media bundles we love so much are in contravention of the principle, more on that later. The full resources of the internet should be accessible to all individuals even as the UN has declared it a human right. If some resources are discounted it is not fair on competing resources and this could lead to censorship by pricing or traffic shaping.
Having said that it becomes clear that a free internet benefits content creators and consumers alike. For content creators it means no barriers to entry and this leads to new players bringing with them innovation and creativity. What barriers to entry? You ask. If ISPs make special deals with a select few, to zero rate or discount their content for example, how can a new player compete. Imagine a local app developer with a killer idea for an instant messaging app. He develops his app, let’s call it Sei Sei. To use the app a person has to have internet access naturally but there are no Sei Sei bundles and so it is expensive compared to WhatsApp. The app is toast.
For end users consider this. Rumbi is a cat apologist who thinks cats should have the same rights as humans, including the right to vote. Kudzi is a top executive at an ISP and believes cats are devils and actively seeks to censor all cat apologist rhetoric. Kudzi makes sure the Cat Apologist Forum website packets are throttled and the site becomes slow to load, if it loads at all and Rumbi cannot access her preferred content. Now on to you, that thing you feel strongly about, consider someone blocking access to it.
Reed Hastings (real person now), the Netflix CEO who used to be a vocal champion of net neutrality recently admitted it is no longer their primary battle although he still believes in it. Why is that? “We’re big enough to get the deals we want,” is the way he put it. The bigger a player is on the internet the less they depend on net neutrality and actually benefit from weak net neutrality principles. Why is that important to know? You will hear arguments against net neutrality but you will notice it is only big corporations and wealthy government officials in that camp.
They will argue that there is need to prevent overuse of bandwidth and that they should be able to charge companies whose content uses substantial amounts of bandwidth. This will be above the charges they exact on end users for access to internet. They will argue net neutrality reduces spending by the big players as this would not be in their best interests which will limit available bandwidth and endanger innovation. There is no conclusive data to support these arguments.
Some will try to use the porn angle, talking about how that kind of content should be censored. Talking about how morals have gone to the dogs and trying to moral shame you. Real concerns, but the internet is not the problem and anyway it is a slippery slope. Once we allow censoring of certain content what is to stop someone censoring seemingly legal and uncontroversial material. You could wake up to find the daily devotional from your favourite pastor blocked.
As you can see there is need to ensure control of the internet does not fall into the hands of a few players. This stifles creativity and innovation and edges the small player out. Compared to developed nations we are not utilising the internet at any meaningful scale here in the developing world. This means we do not have as gigantic companies to contend with and so we should set laws to protect net neutrality now. When internet titans eventually emerge the law would already be set and it would be harder to have it repealed.
We already have an unlevel playing field because of social media bundles brought about by low incomes as explained. Will we have to sacrifice something for the ideal of net neutrality? Sure. Are we willing to make that sacrifice? Not really. Will we plan ahead and practice delayed gratitude? We better. I dream of an internet where no idea is a wrong idea, where everyone is allowed to follow whatever their heart desires, where no one decides what I should or should not see. We are living that dream, let us make sure future generations do too.
This article was meant to introduce the concept to those who had heard about net neutrality but not really understood how it affects them personally. It was by no stretch a detailed technical analysis. There are a lot of considerations and debates to be had and you can read about some of them here if you are technical like that. What do you think about all this? Let us know in the comments below.
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