Net neutrality: Africa, tech giants and the fate of the web

net neutrality africa tom sodoge unsplash

Not to be too dramatic about it, but the internet as we know it is all but dead. And unless there is a collective outcry and immediate action from the masses who “live” and rely on the freedom of the internet each day, it will die. I’m talking about Net Neutrality, and there have been a number of movements from the US Senate all the way through to the Ugandan and Kenyan governments.

First though, let’s just get a common understanding of Net Neutrality.

Today, as you read this article in fact or when you access any other site on the internet via your phone, tablet or computer; you get to view these websites and watch video at pretty much the same speed everyone else does. (Your line speed not withstanding).

The traffic you create simply by browsing the web is treated equally by all the companies that have built the infrastructure of the internet. These are the internet service providers (ISPs), and the “interconnect” companies who basically route and direct traffic between you and your internet provider.

This state of affairs, broadly, is called “net neutrality.” Everyone gets the same treatment. And it is this commonality that is currently under threat.

Anti-Net Neutrality: Ugandan WhatsApp tax

Seeing stories like the recent Ugandan “social media tax” is a direct attack on net neutrality. The Ugandan government is hiding behind an obscure excuse that they are trying to curb online gossip in their country by taxing those who use various social media platforms via their mobile phones. Personally I am not exactly sure how this 200 Shilling tax is going to stop me gossiping?

While this is clearly a huge political play from the Ugandan government and not a direct affront on net neutrality, there is a link as they are essentially curtailing the freedom of expression that Ugandans currently enjoy online.

FCC against Net Neutrality

Late in 2017, the FCC in the US voted to repeal net neutrality protection laws which were put in place in 2015. Under the new order, broadband internet will no longer be classified as a Title II service and the added regulations that go along with that classification will be removed.

ISPs are now free to practice blocking, throttling and paid prioritization as long as they disclose those practices as per a new transparency requirement.

How do the big boys feel about net neutrality?

In theory Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and other publishers such as Netflix are officially opposed to net neutrality. And that makes sense.

“An open internet is critical for new ideas and economic opportunity — and internet providers shouldn’t be able to decide what people can see online or charge more for certain websites,” COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg wrote.

“We’re ready to work with members of Congress and others to help make the internet free and open for everyone.”

Netflix and Microsoft’s Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith echoed similar thoughts.

These reactions make sense. These platforms rely on as many people being able to experience their content as possible. The need a neutral internet as they have the most to lose. If there is no audience, they have no revenue.

The ISPs have the most to gain as they will effectively be able to double dip.

Double Dipping

First, the consumers (us) will have to pay a higher premium to get access to premium content on a faster smoother internet pipe.

Second, the content providers will have to pay the ISPs to put their content into unthrottled and unblocked pipes.

What I find interesting about the content providers position (particularly Facebook) is that there is an element of anti-net neutrality behaviour in their product offerings. Think about the recent alterations to the Facebook algorithm that basically destroys any form or organic discovery and reach on your content and forced brands to “boost” their content to get it seen by a relevant audience.

I agree that you can argue this away as part of the free market economy and capitalism.

The problem I have though is that this is prioritization or paid for content. The very core of net neutrality is that all content should be served equally.

Google straddles this line as well, although I would say slightly more fairly. You have the choice to pay for your position on the Google AdWords platform, or you can make sure that your content is deemed context rich and relevant by the search giant and rank organically.

Google still gives organic discovery a chance. The company has not altered its search algorithm to give preference to AdWords clients over non-AdWords clients. That is net neutrality; that is unprioritised.

Net neutrality and digital transformation

If we take this to the nth degree, net neutrality as some interesting consequences on your digital transformation.

Granted a lot of digital transformation is internal. Digital transformation is about changing the way your systems and process work so that you can better service your client. But the other side of digital transformation is about reaching your client when and where they want to be reached. And let’s face it; clients want a digital experience. They want to be found online.

Every day brands have the most to lose. An internet that is not neutral does not support innovation. It does not support free trade and certainly is anti-competitive.

When thinking about net neutrality; think less about being a consumer and think more about how this affects your business in a truly digital world

Feature image: Tom Sodoge via Unsplash



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