Net neutrality — A debate that Pakistan totally missed
BY SHAHEERA SYED
Last week, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) took a historic step and deciding in favour of net neutrality barred differential pricing for internet services in the country. This put an end to the months long drawn out debate on net neutrality in India.
The decision was especially directed towards the social networking giant Facebook that had been strongly lobbying to introduce Free Basics service in the third largest economy in Asia. In 2013, Facebook launched its free-but-limited internet that was only available to Reliance Communications customers in India. The debate took a full swing in the country when TRAI published a paper titled ‘Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for over-the-top services’ in March 2015. And following TRAI’s order, Free Basics had been out on hold since December 2015.
In order to recognise the significance of this decision and debate, we would first have to understand the concept of net neutrality.
Net neutrality simply means that all data has to be treated equally, no matter who creates it. Equal treatment of the internet traffic ensures that a level-playing field is available to all.
Facebook with internet.org maintained that Free Basics is designed to connect the unconnected poor of the world by providing free mobile internet access to the consumers. At first, this sounds like a worthy initiative but in this corporate profit driven world, it is only wise to think twice about everything.
The catch of this initiative?
Like a gatekeeper, Facebook was initially going to decide which websites were going to become a part of Free Basics service and it had the power to decide which application got accepted or rejected. However, after some incredible opposition, Facebook changed its stance and said that any website that followed its guidelines would be welcome to be a part of Internet.org.
The danger with reliance on such initiatives is that it places too much power in the hands of a very few. A lot of serious problems will arise if Facebook decides to change its policy in the near future. Even if not, the security of the data also raises a huge red flag. Unless and until the end consumers are fully aware of what they are signing up for and how and in what ways their data can or will be used, we can’t naively assume that the services provided don’t cost anything and are free.
Net neutrality is a global debate and has implications for all. In another part of the world, the Federal Communications Commission in the United States has been trying for the last decade to make it legally enforceable to prevent the internet providers to either block or throttle access to certain sites, apps or services or, alternatively, give preferential treatment to them. Last year, the debate revolved around the possibility of opening doors to giant internet providers like COMCAST and Verizon to charge tech companies to send data to consumers quickly i.e., cable companies providing two speed lane services to the consumers. Which, in fact, means that Netflix might pay a premium to ensure that its content it received and viewed by the consumers more reliably. This not only obstructs the principles of free market, creates barriers to entry to newcomers, but also facilitates and enables the wealthiest to establish their monopoly.
This month, after receiving four million public comments from companies, trade associations, advocacy groups, and individuals, the FCC decided in favour of net neutrality. Chairman FCC Tom Wheeler pointed towards an important reality that the broadband providers have the technical ability and financial incentive to impose restrictions on the internet. He said: “The internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet. It is simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee on the field. Think about it. The internet has replaced the functions of the telephone and the post office. The internet has redefined commerce, and as the outpouring from four million Americans has demonstrated, the internet is the ultimate vehicle for free expression. The internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules.
“This proposal has been described by one opponent as a secret plan to regulate the internet. Nonsense. This is no more a plan to regulate the internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concepts: openness, expression, and an absence of gate keepers telling people what they can do, where they can go, and what they can think.”
This is an important message to the policymakers all over the world. The debate on net neutrality is also picking up on places like Nigeria mainly because more and more are realising the importance of this discussion and how it can shape the future of our coming generations. Unfortunately, the silence on the topic of net neutrality in the policy circles of Pakistan is deafening. The policymakers and activists either aren’t aware of the implications of this much needed discussion or they simply don’t care – each option is scarier than the other.
Last year, Telenor in collaboration with Facebook launched internet.org in Pakistan. It allowed all its pre-paid and post-paid customers to use selected internet websites for free whereas, charged usual tariffs for any external links. This was a significant move in every regard. Pakistan has an estimated amount of 126 million mobile users and we have the fourth cheapest monthly mobile cost in the world. These are staggering figures which indicate not an opportunity but also the need for stronger regulation. It is almost unbelievable to think that in a country where it is a challenge for even the government to access its people, a social networking giant is not only allowed to benefit from the mobile market penetration but also become the sole portal to connect to the online world. It is the responsibility of the government, media and activists to invite discussion on such important topics and to bring them in the public discourse. Whether the pubic accepts an initiative comes later; first we need to ensure that a healthy and informed debate is conducted before such proposals are implemented in the country.
It is indeed a positive sign that huge investments are being directed towards Pakistan and companies are looking towards the country to pilot and expand their programmes. However, the absence of a strong regulatory system and absolute silence on such important issues in the public arena only mean payment of heavy price in the near future. For it is better to try and make a wrong decision than to remain ignorant and let others make decisions on your behalf.