Since some two years ago, the debate over net neutrality has emerged and continues to occupy the forefront of the discussions on different platforms at national level, for some countries, regional and international meetings (IGF, conferences, symposiums etc). Discussions and debate are still ongoing, including the topic of Zero Rating. To help us understand this issue, we will briefly unpack these two concepts and finally make an assessment.
What is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all online content, sites, and platforms equally. For example, they should not intentionally block or slow certain web sites or services. Net neutrality allows freedom of expression and equal opportunities by giving Internet user the opportunity to seek, to receive, to exchange information and to interact as equals. For that neutrality to be real, it is necessary that the Internet remains an open platform where ISPs treat content, applications and services equally, without discrimination. It is important for net neutrality that everyone can innovate without obtaining permission to do so.
A definition of network neutrality stipulates that it provides for all applications and services be treated equally and without discrimination, especially in the more populated regions of the world, where the next three billion Internet users will be connected.
The issue of specialized services
The European Union (EU) calls for an “Open” Internet, and its draft regulation provides that specialty services, such as the establishment of different levels of priority given by their clients, be offered to end users, as well as companies willing to pay more to receive a priority service. However, this project allows that services related to priority levels may not be available if the daily limit bandwidth or Internet surfing speed has been reached.
Specific cases will be given priority in online traffic, namely: preventing terrorist attacks; sensitive data relating to health; remote surgery or driverless cars. Some suggestions were to assess various data and information on the practices and effects of networking and existing policies on net neutrality; to work on the basic principles namely; the significant transparency of data management practices by suppliers; no blocking and no unreasonable discrimination traffic information; to further examine upstream impacts of new aspects such as zero rated or specialized services on the economy; user experience and human rights.
Net neutrality is the principle that all online traffic should be treated equally. Would we have this neutrality in zero rating, with some free Internet access services, especially from certain mobile operators?
Zero rating is a business practice of some ISPs, particularly some mobile operators, which means not measuring the amount of data of certain applications or services in the usage calculation by their customers. In other words, access to these websites or services is provided free to their clients. The European Parliament intends to allow national regulators, who will be responsible for overseeing the implementation of the draft regulation, to decide whether zero rating can be applied in their country or not.
However Internet.org develops another option
Internet.org was launched on the 20th August 2013 by the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. In a ten-page press release, he explained how this project addresses a major challenge for humanity by stating in particular that "Connectivity is a Human Right."
Zero rating by ISPs provides customers a clear set of services or applications for free, without a data plan or without considering some services or applications in the calculation of data usage. This practice is discriminatory and that is why it has been banned or restricted in some countries like Canada, Netherlands, Slovenia, and Chile. This practice is currently the basis of the Internet.org model. Facebook has established partnerships with ISPs around the world to offer free access to certain Internet applications to users. These agreements and partnerships undermine the freedom of expression and equal opportunities, giving ISPs the power to favor certain Internet services over others, to hinder the free flow of information and to restrict the rights of people when dealing with networks.
It should be stressed that the position of "Internet.org" also raises the following concerns:
Internet.org sells the idea that their zero rated Internet account offers full Internet access, when in reality, users receive only very limited Internet access;
Internet.org presents additional risks for freedom of expression. The ability to censor Internet gateways is well established. Some Governments require ISPs to block access to certain sites or services. Zero rating seems to open Facebook to allowing Governments to put pressure on it to block some content or similarly, when users need to connect to access a site, to block access to certain users. In countries which practice this kind of restrictions, Facebook would play the role of arbiter in decisions about surveillance and censorship against politically active users;
Our concern is also about the consequences Internet.org may cause to the protection of privacy. Facebook's policy in this respect does not give sufficient protection for new users of the Internet, who may not have a clear idea of how their data would be utilized, or who are not able to adequately provide their consent to certain practices. In the absence of statements affirming otherwise, we can assume Internet.org collects data on users through its applications and services. The use that Internet.org and its partners in telecommunications will make of this data is not clearly explained. It would be much easier for Governments and relevant actors to monitor users on the Internet; and
The current modalities of implementation of Internet.org threaten the safety of users. The version of 4th May prohibits the use of the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol, secure exchange of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or HTTPS encryption services by participants. This increases the risk to users by making them more vulnerable to malicious attacks and etc.
If net neutrality is the principle that all online traffic should be treated in the same way, would we be able to maintain net neutrality if we have zero rating, where there are some free Internet access services, especially from certain mobile operators?
Panoramic presentation of Internet.org
Internet.org is a global partnership between several companies, including: Facebook, Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, and Qualcomm Opera Software. The purpose of this partnership is to promote Internet access for all, especially for victims of the digital divide in developing countries.
This strategy in parallel, allows an increase in the number of Facebook users:
Ghana, Kenya and Zambia through the operator Airtel;
Colombia, Democratic of Republic of Congo (DRC), Guatemala and the United Republic of Tanzania with Tigo;
India with Reliance Communications; and
Philippines with Smart Communications.
Internet.org began a partnership with Reliance Communications, an Indian operator, on the 10th February 2015. This partnership allows provision of Internet access to those who do not have the financial resources, in six (6) Indian states.
Connecting the world is a challenge that one company or organization cannot meet alone. Various technologies exist in the field of communication, and they are not applicable in the same way depending on the geographic location and landscape involved.
The Internet.org project aims to develop different platforms for different population groups: in the most densely populated areas (typically areas of high urban density), a mesh network is a solution to multiply Internet access points for a large number of people gathered, at a reasonable cost; in medium population density areas, Internet access could be provided by the connected Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), powered by solar energy. In the less densely populated areas, satellite connections may be considered, but for now they remain expensive.
To overcome these limitations, an Innovation Lab was designed under the leadership of a collaboration between Ericsson and Facebook. This laboratory, located at the headquarters of Facebook, allows developers to build applications that can work across the world, by testing under different network conditions.
Mobile Application Internet.org
This application facilitates access to the Internet by providing free basic services. These services provide information in the areas of health, employment and other local information. Some features of the application: AccuWeather, Airtel, Facebook, Google Search, Go Zambia Jobs, eZeLibrary, MaMa (Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action Alliance), Messenger and Wikipedia. The application is operational today in Colombia, DRC, Ghana, India, Kenya, Philippines, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia. Since 26th March 2015, the application has been in use in Guatemala.
Some Experts say that net neutrality is not a problem in Africa despite the fact that for the first time local telecom players offering "free" access to web services. These service providers offered free access to certain web page in hearing of paid access to the other.
In Africa, it is still difficult to understand that free does not exist. The word "free" is a marketing tool like any other network used to develop usage patterns that are then billed "hard" in the near future. With well-studied plan mercantile Facebook and others offer Internet access services "free" at all. This is the case of Kenya, Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
For Facebook is expanding its Facebook Zero program, through which the company deals with telcos from emerging markets to offer the social network for free. Twitter and Google are doing the same thing, Wikipedia, and even if it is purely altruistic in. By providing free access to some popular sites (Google and Facebook) have customers through telecommunications companies, ISP show that while they were in control of the sites and access, so they could have all the time to charge their users access a competing web services, websites deem it appropriate or inappropriate for their business, stifle access to competing advertising, "block" access to content criticize about them and etc.
These dress initiatives "Free" and "Charities" informative in Africa in complicity with telecommunication groups might be trying to install the web control of bases on the continent.
The African Television Internet
If the issue related to the 'net neutrality' is not discussed, the 240 million African users may be surprised by channeling their access to information, which can even lead to unbearable costs for schools and African universities have to "pay" for their student's access to information freely available on the web.
There as a desire to "make money" by operating a force passage on an African land or oppositions are easy to corrupt and users not well informed of the issues of internet access "fee". This forced passage is often decked out as "free" and "magnanimous" insolent.
What Experts say
For many experts, is the problem serious enough to impede the free access to web services in Africa?
For certain, the problem arises only if the cost has access remains high and that with regard to access to optical fiber (high speed internet) and access to Wireless Spectrum.
The Association of Internet Service Providers (ISPA) in South Africa estimates that net neutrality is not a "problem" for their country; when the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) said that South Africa must avoid legislating on the issue of net neutrality.
For ISPA based in South Africa, this is a problem unique to the US, because the "cable operators" who converted their cables with broadband links dominate the market for access to the Internet as a whole and have a monopoly at best duopoly. This debate is useless in Africa faces from fair competition that must be resolved. ISPA believes that more effort should be made to prevent ISPs to prioritize their own network over other operators.
According to David Meyer, a journalist for the site Gigaom, based in Europe, net neutrality is a complex African problem. The principle of "net neutrality" is composed of serious advantages, but also long-term risks that should not be minimized.
David Meyer, in an article highlighting the "advantages" and "disadvantages" of the initiative "Internet.org" offered by Facebook App Zambia highlights:
The advantages: He explains that these initiatives can help to provide internet access to those who had none; give the opportunity to the Internet and Internet provider to present these opportunities; sell web services and applications; and
The drawbacks: Users must pay fees to get out of the free access service, which does not encourage competition because no one wants to have to "pay" for this removed a service to discover competitive offerings. The powerful telecommunications monopolies can be strengthened and potentially slow down innovation.
If your web experience is slandered by a monolithic gate, this can undermine privacy because any "navigation" is channeled through a door that profiling can provide your personal information to advertisers but also to all of espionage or other services and this is a dangerous drawback.
This disadvantage can be risky for freedom of expression in countries where state censorship would be happy at the thought of all internet traffic and pass a single portal.
Chili and Europe do not want
Chili has banned these practices, and the new net neutrality law passed soon in Europe will do the same. This tells us that we must remain vigilant because the issue of net neutrality is not only a problem for emerging markets.
Despite the positive aspects of free web initiative, net neutrality in Africa is a problem that needs to be analyzed, the deeper reasons of group investments like Facebook, Google and other should be studied and "stripped" of their disguise and charitable allowed to bring their service if and only if the intellectual development of Africa also benefits. Free access to selected web services on the continent is here to stay, but our "knowledge industry" must be protected from infantilization in exchange for economic income that do us "buy" and "import" "knowledge"
What challenges for the growth of the digital economy in Africa?
The exponential development of new technologies in Africa has led to the emergence of a strong digital economy, supported by a multitude of startups and web companies. The industry media and entertainment sector is probably the fastest growth, and underpin this development in Africa must create local content; it is more necessary than ever with the transition from analogue to Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT).
The revolutionary principle of freedom of the Internet allows any user to become an actor of creation/distribution of content and enrich the web. Prioritization of Internet traffic based on trade agreements would be simply to exclude the visibility of Africa, most content providers do not measure up to American and European giants of the Web we know today. Apart from South Africa, the African Continent has until now virtually given no opinion in this battle on net neutrality. African telecom operators probably consider it a "rich problem".
Indeed the problem raised by this subject is that of the quality of the Internet and therefore presupposes access to the Internet; gold in the light of the situation right now in most African countries (especially those of francophone Africa), it is obvious that the debate would quickly refocused: The Internet today can be akin to a royal banquet hosted by the United States as guest of honor with Europe, while Africa is investing huge sums in submarine cables to be able see the progress of the party since the trees that surround the palace.
Suffice to say that for Africans the Internet has never really been neutral, and this is not likely to happen as the democratization of the fiber optic will not be effective. While it is true that over the last ten years the number of submarine cable carrying Internet to Africa has increased significantly, they are in most African countries controlled by an incumbent that charges a heavy price to ISPs for access to these international Internet backbones. Obviously these ISPs are in turn paid a high price by end consumers with Internet access rates as high as each other, so it is in this that lies the main concern now regarding Africa Internet.
Clearly, before you can participate in a debate such as that of net neutrality, Africa has other challenges it will face first, for example increasing the number of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) across the continent, promote national and regional peering, developing infrastructure networks, establishing clear rules on the status of ISPs and content providers, liberalize the market for the provision of Internet access and etc.
Africa is today the least connected continent, Internet users with a penetration rate estimated at 9.8% according to the latest statistics (June 2014) of the Internet world statistics. In the race to reduce this digital divide, we are seeing more and more trade agreements between local operators and web American giants to provide free internet services to some African, hence their qualification zero-rated services.
A strict application of net neutrality would mean the complete disappearance of this kind of services, designed for people with very low incomes and unable to enjoy the global Internet. It is also necessary that the real reasons behind these initiatives are really those advanced by their promoters: if one assumes that innovation often arises from a lack or need, nationals of emerging countries most likely to be tomorrow's major players of innovation; but if for them the access to information has resulted in a sponsored Internet where they see only what the promoter wants to show them behind, preventing them from thinking freely and depriving them of any spirit of creativity, we easily arrive at the conclusion that the next Facebook or Google will definitely not be African!
Net neutrality involves a debate on the treatment of preferred online content (zero rating), a practice used by some Internet companies to promote content, applications or services by not charging consumers for their usage. The notion of network neutrality takes into consideration the extent to which Internet traffic management practices (TMP) may be admissible, without being considered as discriminatory or putting in jeopardy end-users' full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Network neutrality is grounded on openness, universal access and transparency, and stems from the end-to-end argument whereby the Internet is a general-purpose network whose intelligence resides at the edges. According to such reasoning, “certain required end-to-end functions can only be performed correctly by the end-systems themselves” and the best way to cope with failures of transmission is to “give responsibility for the integrity of communication to the end systems”. Accordingly, end-users should not be victims of opaque TMP, but rather enjoy an open and neutral network which allows them to control the applications they use; to benefit from the maximum access to online content, application and services; and to easily circulate their innovations.
The majority of network operators frequently put in place TMP consisting of blocking, filtering and throttling specific data flows, in order to prioritise or impede access to certain applications, services or content. The widespread adoption of such TMP leads to the conclusion that the mere self-regulation may be insufficient to maintain the open and neutral character of the Internet.
Although no evidence of market failure has been associated with non-neutral TMP, it is right and proper to query to what extent such management techniques may interfere with the end-users’ freedom of expression and communication. Indeed, non-neutral traffic management may lead to the establishment of so-called “walled gardens”, thus fostering network balkanization and limiting end-users’ possibility to stimulate innovations, as well as their fundamental right to freely impart and receive information and ideas through the Internet.
Furthermore, concerns have been growing around network operators’ utilisation of intrusive techniques, such as Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), in order to identify the content and applications which they intend to block and prioritise. Indeed, the exploitation of these techniques hold promise to provoke nefarious consequences on end-users’ privacy.
Recurring issues include the fear that the zero rating could restrict competition or market access for new operators. Others argue that zero rating can generate investments in networks, as well as socio-economic benefits.
Africa would she have to gain or lose if the Internet were to be regulated?
It would be difficult to stand on one side or the other of the fence, in order to answer this question. The advantages to keep a neutral Internet are certainly more to show, but do not forget that in Africa almost all telecom operators are also content providers, and thus are often tempted to favor their own content to the detriment of their competitors. Strict enforcement of net neutrality would therefore be utopian in this context. Furthermore, given the stage where Africa is currently at, the level of infrastructure, technology and legislation, telecom operators gain can be shaped to multiply the Internet offers, or offers tailored Internet (Streaming, instant messaging, peer-traffic to-peer and etc) to improve the Quality of Service (QOS), although ironically this type of offers is a breach of the fundamental principle of net neutrality.
With zero rating, companies providing Internet access, particularly mobile operators, may enable consumers to access certain parts of Internet content, services or applications without charging them for that specific data use. Zero rating can be applied by not charging for data traffic arising from specific applications or by offering situations where users can access the service, even if they do not have a data plan.
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