There are few things I’m particularly passionate about when it comes to technology, law and regulation: net neutrality, copyright and intellectual property. Today I’ll be taking about net neutrality.
So what is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is a principle that ensures Internet Service providers may not discriminate between different kinds of content and applications online, or simply, all internet traffic is to be treated equally.
Why do I think this is important?
Well it prevents an ISP from arbitrarily blocking access to websites and applications, or creating a tiered internet where some websites and applications run faster than others. In this way they’ll be messing with the open access ethos of the internet in which the users choose their services based on preferences and quality of services. In a world where a page loading a few seconds slower can cause someone to move on to another, this is a big deal.
Also, it prevents ISPs from double dipping, i.e. charging both users and websites; users already pay data charges to the ISPs to access the internet. If net neutrality is not enforced, then websites and developers would be forced, under threat of blockage or throttling, to pay ISPs for access to their customers.
Finally, net neutrality allows innovation to continue. Any website today can launch and compete with any other, but if ISPs charged for access that means that only incumbents, who have deep pockets, would be able to pay. This means that the cost of starting an internet company would go up, perhaps locking out more innovative start ups which can’t afford to pay to play.
So far I’ve talked mostly on when ISPs create a two speed internet where some websites run faster than others, but there’s another facet I want to talk about: zero rated data. This is where an ISP favours their own content or that of 3rd parties by making them not charge towards data. This is especially important on mobile networks where every single megabyte counts. Anyone would choose a service that doesn’t eat their precious data bundles over one that does.
As an example, Safaricom currently has a bundle that has users pay 10bob daily and have unlimited access to Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp. I have all these applications installed on my phone so this is a great deal – that I don’t use but let’s just imagine I did – but I also have other applications that serve similar purposes: Google+, Hangouts, Skype and Viber. Guess which ones get neglected? What about if we had local competing alternatives? *Just to be clear I don’t know if Twitter or Facebook is paying for this but it does drive my point home, no?*
Net neutrality is particularly important for Kenya because we’re trying to move our economy from a mostly agricultural one to a knowledge and services one, skipping over the industrial stage I might add – I have some thoughts on this but in a nutshell not a good idea, and knowledge plays on the internet.
So what can the government do about this?
Well they could enact legislation instilling net neutrality in law, prevent discrimination beyond network optimisation. I’m particularly for this option so that there’s no wiggle room in interpretation and implementation. Another option would be having the regulator create rules for it. This could also work but unfortunately in this country I’ve seen the regulator back down due to pressure from lobbyists, the president overturn their decisions (should happen less often now with their newly constitutional sanctioned independence) and kicked about by the court (see the decision concerning TV broadcasters).
Finally, true competition among ISPs would prevent this. This would include making it really easy for customers to switch among ISPs so that they can always use the one with the best service.
Thanks for commenting Eric. I think you have the definition of net neutrality wrong though. It's where all traffic on the internet is treated equal with no preferential treatment for anyone.
What's bad for business is allowing ISPs to create false bandwidth shortages in order to drive up prices. Netflix offered ISPs FREE peering hardware that would have relieved network congestion ("peering" skips interconnection and allows direct access; so instead of your movie loading from a server in California, it loads from a Netflix server placed directly at your ISP, skipping the internet backbone entirely), but the Comcast and Verizon refused this free upgrade and instead demand that Netflix pay money for what is essentially access to subscribers.
Net neutrality, ideally, would prevent ISPs from engaging in purposefully inefficient network practices.