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Why Net Neutrality matters for end-users in the MENA Region?

“Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success,” said Vint Cerf, considered by many as the father of the Internet. He was speaking of a vision shared widely and a fundamental concept on the Internet: Net Neutrality. A term often heard, Net Neutrality is simply defined as the principle that Internet users can connect to any other point in the network. In other words, users can create, access, and use any content, service, and application they choose, without discrimination, restriction, or limitation imposed by the owners of Internet infrastructure (Internet Access Providers (IAP), Internet Service Providers (ISP), governments, corporations, etc.).

If it’s a simple harmless concept, why is it being violated?

Have you ever experienced a slow connection when opening a video, a website, or a service over the net? This is one of the formal aspects of the violation of the Net Neutrality. In fact, the reasons for doing so are quite diverse, including the financial profit – for instance, some ISPs block some applications or slow down Internet traffic for their own commercial benefit when their delivery is challenged, since ISPs provide content, services, and applications. For example, Comcast, the well-known American ISP, in the late 2000s, took steps to reduce or block BitTorrent traffic on its network, because BitTorrent users can download movies and videos freely, preferring it to Comcast’s pay-per-view service.

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) launched an investigation and, in mid-2008, the Commission ruled that Comcast’s policy of crippling BitTorrent was a violation of Net Neutrality rules – even though the company had voluntarily halted the practice six months prior. Another example of discrimination is T-Mobile’s blocking of Internet telephony services (Voice over IP), provided for example by Skype, in order to give priority to their own and their business partners’ services. National security, mass surveillance, and counter-terrorism are also “legitimated” reasons for governments to ask for access to customers’ personal data and to filter and monitor the Internet to enforce the law. Today, they are over forty countries where website blocking has been introduced. This list includes Belgium, France, Italy, the UK, and Ireland.

In the words of the European Data Protection Supervisor, “The concept of Net Neutrality builds on the view that information on the Internet should be transmitted impartially, without regard to content, destination, or source. By looking into users’ Internet communications, ISPs may breach the existing rules on the confidentiality of communications, which is a fundamental right that must be carefully preserved. A serious policy debate on Net Neutrality must make sure that users’ confidentiality of communications is effectively protected.” Net Neutrality ensures a digital democratic sphere where the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, and protection of personal data are respected, as the Internet is a tool for innovation and competition in developing digital markets.

However, many opponents claim certain myths about Net Neutrality. For instance, saying “Net Neutrality is bad for the development of infrastructure, who is going to pay?” This claim is based on the concept that giving free access to users will cause congestion of the network and harm availability of content that would stimulate more investment in broadband. In fact, the ability of consumers to access Internet content, applications, and services is the reason consumers are willing to pay Internet access providers.

This claim is baseless, because users are already paying their subscriptions, for content and applications that allow ISPs to profit from their investment in networks. Moreover, consumers’ demand to use high-bandwidth applications, such as peer-to-peer sharing and streaming music and video, creates demand for faster Internet connections, more revenue for access providers, and, ultimately, fuels investment in infrastructure. Another claim is that “Net Neutrality legislation would mean no network management, causing problems for the quality of the Internet.” This is another wrong argument, because the legislation protecting Net Neutrality will end arbitrary restrictions implemented by access providers that are designed to undermine the openness of the Internet to make extra profits, rather than preventing them from managing their networks.

What is the state of Net Neutrality in the MENA region?

The Net Neutrality debate is quite weak and in some countries not taken into consideration at all. On the other side, violations of Net Neutrality, online rights, and oppression over the Internet is on the rise, despite the “Arab spring” revolutions. For example, in June 2016, a law was passed by the Moroccan government giving the right to IAPs to block VoIP. This creates a more profitable situation for Moroccan telecom operators and ISPs. There is a lack of protestation in this field from consumers and civil society using the alternative of VPN networks (such as Hotspot Shield) to overcome this block.

The situation is quite different in another MENA country, Algeria, where at the same period, and without any notice, the Algerian government blocked access to social networks (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram). The reason: to prevent candidates taking the Baccalaureate exam from accessing leaked test copies that might be circulating over these networks. As for the Moroccan consumers, the public reaction was to download Hotspot and use it to overpass censorship. However, Algerian Internet Provider, operators and Internet Services Providers register a severe financial loss (not less than 100 million DZD per day) what made them certainly unhappy.

If there is a bright spot in the MENA region in this field, it could be Tunisia. In fact, there were several debates and initiatives made to encourage Net Neutrality in the country. Article 26 of the Tunisian Telecom Code of 2001 states that “the holder of a telecommunication license must comply with the condition of privacy and neutrality regarding the communication signals.” In other terms, every operator in Tunisia must agree to respect the neutrality of transmitted data over their equipment. It also stimulates neutrality in the process with the customers and the other providers. Based on this article, the Tunisian government IAP sent a serious warning to the three private telecom operators in 2014 when they decided to block VoIP on their respective networks. However, this law must be reinforced by taking into consideration social media and new technologies, and through soliciting the contribution of all stakeholders to Internet governance.

The Internet must be free, open, and preserve the rights of all the users, without any kind of discrimination or repression or censorship of their rights. It was never intended as a tool to give power to IAPs or ISPs to be a “Gatekeeper,” privileging certain users or blocking others based on business or governmental interests.  Let’s safeguard Net Neutrality!

References and further readings:

2- http://www.ijsr.net/archive/v4i7/SUB156685.pdf

Mr. Houssem Kaabi is a Network & Telecoms Engineer, Online security trainer  and Internet Policy Analyst  

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