Network Neutrality: The African perspective
Wikipedia defines Network neutrality (also net neutrality, Internet neutrality) as a principle proposed for user access networks participating in the Internet that advocates no restrictions by Internet service providers (ISP’s) and governments on content, sites, platforms, the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and the modes of communication.
Tim Bernes Lee who invented the Internet says this of net neutrality:
If I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or greater quality of service, then we can communicate at that level.
This therefore means that if I pay my local Kenyan ISP to connect to the Internet at say 4Mbps and another user in the USA also does the same, both of us should therefore enjoy equal access to all content on the Internet without hindrance of any kind. If i host a website that is accessible via my 4Mbps line to the internet and the user in the US also hosts his own website then the quality of access of both websites should be equal, neither mine or his should be slower.
Those against net neutrality say that if i want my website to be accessed better and faster, i need to pay more money to my ISP to do that, failure to which traffic to my website via my 4Mbps link will be treated with bias with respect to those who have paid.
All this brouhaha about net neutrality came from large traffic carriers such as sprint, level3, BT, Verizon etc who argued that companies such as Facebook, yahoo and Google are using their infrastructure to make money while they get a raw deal. This led to an ISP such as Verizon partnering with Google and Verizon agreeing to give Google traffic more priority over their network than say traffic from yahoo. This means that if your ISP is Verizon or peers to Verizon then your experience when accessing yahoo will be different from when accessing Google. This effectively creates a ‘private Internet’.
Where is the danger in this? you may ask. In the joint statement by google and Verizon where they try to deny that they want to privatize the Internet, (available here), somewhere in between the many lines of legal mumbo-jumbo, they say:
“This means that for the first time, wireline broadband providers would not be able to discriminate against or prioritize lawful Internet content, applications or services in a way that causes harm to users or competition.”
This effectively creates a loophole for throttling unlawful content on the internet. This is because they do not have the mandate to define what is lawful and wha is unlawful. The organizations or governments operationalizing this have a free hand to define lawfulness of content. MySpace traffic will now be deemed unlawful by say Facebook friendly ISP….. get the trend?
If for example Saudi Arabia decides all Christian websites are unlawful then Saudi ISPs can throttle access to these websites in Saudi Arabia. If the US government decides a website such as Wikileaks is unlawful, they can go ahead and instruct all American ISPs (translated most ISPs in the world) to throttle traffic to Wikileaks because ….. wait for it… it’s coming……… they do not pay the ISP to carry its traffic. Internet censorship will have found a back door to the world! This would also mean that if Facebook pays level3 to prioritize its traffic, it kills off competition from MySpace because MySpace experience on a level3 network would be poor.
The network owners have argued that Network Neutrality is unnecessary because there is sufficient competition in the broadband market to deter bad behavior. They argue that if Verizon degraded access to a site or discriminated against the use of one service in favor of another, they would anger customers who would move to another network operator in the area.
Consumers must have robust competition and multiple choices for this theory to work. But such competition or choice does not exist in Africa, and it isn’t likely to exist in the foreseeable future. This is because most ISPs in the continent end up connecting to the same backbone cable to the internet that peers to the same big provider in US and EU :-(. There is insufficient competition between different technologies and ISPs to produce any kind of deterrent should one operator block our access to the free-flowing Internet. This leaves the African user in a very bad situation.
What does this mean to African Internet content and users?
Africa is a net content importer, this means that majority (over 99%) of all Internet content viewed in Africa comes from outside Africa. This was occasioned by the fact that our local backbone infrastructure was and continues to be poor to effectively host content locally. lack of local content, bandwidth scarcity and unreliable power supply have made the continent a net consumer of traffic rather than a generator. The situation is so bad that even our local media houses who produce close to 100% local news have to host their websites and portals in the US or Europe. African ISPs peer to European or American Tier 2 ISP networks who eventually peer to tier 1 ISPs such as Verizon and sprint who are adversely mentioned in deals with companies such as Google on preferential traffic treatment.
Africa recently joined the rest of the world on the internet by laying high-capacity submarine fiber optic cables. This is not only expected to provide faster access to foreign content, but is also aimed at availing African content to the world and Africa in general. The lack of IXP’s means that the African user still accesses most of the local content via the internet in Europe or the US. With the lack of net neutrality, Africa-originated traffic will not be treated equally on the internet playing field as say traffic from Google or Microsoft. This is because the latter will be paying millions of dollars to have their traffic receive preferential treatment from the large data carriers. This, coupled with the fact that the continent produces slightly less than 2% of the total world traffic, will mean African content will be nearly invisible on the Internet.
The result of this is stiffed growth of local content and general development of the continent. With the legacy telecoms systems also turning into the ubiquitous IP on which the Internet is based, African telecoms traffic (primarily voice) to the world will also be disadvantaged shutting off the continent from the world once more.
Sadly, the continents industry players have been very silent on the matter. There has not been a single conference/meeting of minds on the continent to discuss/advocate net neutrality. Only the South African government has tried to discuss it but not from the general perspective of throttling non-paying traffic from providers but from the consumer perspective.
This silence makes me get the feeling that the absence of net neutrality will be good for despotic African governments who will ride on the wave and ban access to information that will pose a threat to their rule and hold on power. I hope i am wrong.
African ISPs/ content developers and consumers need to speak out for net neutrality. Local NGOs that are very vocal on issues such as human rights should also come out and advocate for a neutral internet because thanks to it, they were able to communicate to the world when governments curtailed their freedom of speech. NGOs in America are doing it such as here, here, here and here.
Here in Kenya we are so busy laying infrastructure (fiber, 3G, LTE etc) and talking politics that we forget the fundamental threat to the very cause of the telecoms revolution in the country. Let us do all we can to protect the public Internet from going private.