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One of the great policy and governance questions of today and the future is how to provide Internet to all of humanity (Sambuli, 2016). Various strategies are being deployed to connect the “next billion” Internet users - most of whom are in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In Kenya the government has created an enabling environment that has allowed network operators to make significant investment in infrastructure to meet the ever growing consumer demand for high speed broadband Internet access. The government has also directly invested in national broadband infrastructure with the belief that access the internet is critical in achieving social economic development.
According to the latest statistics released by the Communications Authority of Kenya, 71.7 percent of Kenyans have access to the internet mainly through their mobile phones. Mobile operators are therefore employing various strategies including zero-rating access to popular content including Facebook, Wikipedia and Google to boost the number of data users and smart phone sales. Zero-rating is a practice that enables mobile customers to download and upload online content without incurring data usage charges or having their usage counted against data usage limits. This practice has become one of the most contentious issues in internet governance today.
Zero rating is bringing the net neutrality debate that has raged in the USA to the shores of Africa. While in the US, Internet firms are fighting to protect the openness of the internet in Africa they are signing exclusive deals with operators to guarantee free access to their content. This violation of net neutrality is however viewed positively as it is argued that zero rating enables poor and disadvantaged communities that cannot afford mobile internet subscriptions, access to Wikipedia, Facebook, or Google. Facebook through the internet.org project has argued that some Internet access is better than none. Internet.org, launched in 2013 by the Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, aims to “bring Internet access and the benefits of connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that doesn’t have them”.
In my view access to this limited content cannot be defined as “access to the internet”. In addition Facebook essentially becomes a ‘gatekeeper’ to the internet limiting users’ world view, to that of the content provider resulting to what some commenters have referred to as “poverty of imagination”. It is suspected that Internet firms such as Facebook are finding innovative ways such as zero-rating with the sole aim of exporting its service and expanding its user bases in developing countries.
Prioritizing access to selected internet content by mobile operators means that mobile operators do not offer full access to the open Internet. This has been viewed as an infringement on network neutrality as it gives preferential treatment to selected internet content placing competing locally produced and locally relevant online content at a disadvantage. It is difficult for smaller local companies, which don't benefit from such prioritization, to get access to users. These firms are unable to compete with internet giants thus smothering innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. The enactment of net neutrality rules would therefore create a fair and level playing field. Non-discriminatory or equal access to internet, in my view should be safeguarded to ensure that users have unfettered access to the internet. Under the network neutrality principle ISPs/network operators should not charge or inhibit access to certain kinds of content in favor of others.
With increased access to the internet regulators should begin to monitor zero-rated services and consider regulation or rules to protect net neutrality. Some regulators (India, Netherlands, Slovenia and Chile) have moved to ban or limit zero-rating programs as it goes against the network neutrality principle. While considering what action to take on zero-rated services, regulators should ensure that their actions are not counterproductive and do not harm consumer welfare.
It is important to note that most of the content on the internet is foreign, thus foreign internet firms would be seen as taking advantage of infrastructure investment in developing countries. Governments in these countries should therefore put in place strategies to encourage the development of local content to utilize these networks rather than having them being used by foreign internet firms with no compensation.
Walubengo, J. (2016) Zero-rated internet services are much needed in developing economies
Sambuli, N (2016) Free Basics may promise free Internet, but what about internet free...
Disclaimer: Views expressed on this article (except those reference or quoted) are the author’s own