30th August 2016 was an historic day for the internet and the rights of internet users everywhere. Internet activists on this day hailed EU regulators’ announcement of new rules to prevent telecoms companies from slowing down some internet traffic as a historic achievement.
The rules are a blueprint for how national watchdogs will enforce the EU net neutrality law that was passed last summer, and were greeted with dismay by large telecoms companies. So, what exactly is net neutrality and why should we be aware of it?
Net neutrality is the Internet’s guiding principle. It maintains the rights of users to communicate freely online. This is the definition of an open Internet. Net neutrality means an internet that enables and protects free speech. It means that Internet service providers should provide us with open networks — and should not block or discriminate against any applications or content that ride over those networks.
Just as your phone company shouldn’t decide who you can call and what you say on that call, your ISP shouldn’t be concerned with the content you view or post online.
Without Net Neutrality, ISPs could separate their internet services into fast and slow lanes. An ISP can slow down its competitors’ content or block political opinions, or any other traffic it disagrees with. ISPs could charge extra fees to the few larger companies that could afford to pay for preferential treatment — and reduce everyone else services accordingly. This would be an anti-competitive move. Imagine Escom providing services to your competitor who has paid them additional funds – to cut you lout of the market?
This sort of unilateral control would destroy the open Internet as we know it. Do remember that internet services are now being actively considered as an essential service – much in the same ways as utilities such as power and water. Of course, recently, so called democratic African governments have followed the example of totalitarian countries such as China to seek to curtail or eavesdrop on internet and email traffic– mainly because they fear civil unrest. In China, for example – Facebook and Twitter are both blocked by government. These countries include Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Legislation that they have employed to do this has created an uproar in these countries by civil rights activists and the media
.However, the ruling by the EU regulators now provides the blueprint for ISPs behaviour globally – whether it is respected outside the EU and America remains to be seen. Why should this bother us in Malawi? Net neutrality is essential for small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs, who rely on the open Internet to launch their businesses, create a market, advertise their products and services, and distribute products to customers.
The open Internet to allows us to create more jobs and encourage competition and innovation.Net neutrality lowers the barriers of entry for entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses by ensuring the web is a fair and level playing field for all. No company should be able to interfere with this open marketplace. ISPs are by definition the gatekeepers to the Internet, and without net neutrality, they could seize every possible opportunity to profit from that gatekeeper control.
The open Internet also gives marginalized voices opportunities to be heard. But without net neutrality, ISPs could block unpopular speech and prevent dissident voices from speaking freely online. Without net neutrality, people of colour, in the USA, for example, would lose a vital platform. Net neutrality allows other minorities throughout the world, such as women, ethnic or disabled groups to be able to vocalise and publicise their plight.
Net neutrality, as a topic, sounds boring. Its absence, however, would negatively affect most of us who believe in free speech and a free market. It needs to be protected, very much the same way as a free media, by all of us. Personally I strongly believe that it should be classed as an essential service for all users.
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