Internet Neutrality (aka Net Neutrality) is essentially about:
Equal opportunities for services to compete and for people to have choice. It is about launching ideas and competing without unnecessary overhead costs,and fostering innovation.
The currently proposed FCC (Federal Communications Commission) rules for American ISPs have brought the subject of net neutrality to the forefront, as a core feature of the Internet that the user community must strive to maintain.
However, when speaking about net neutrality in Africa, one needs to understand the context and circumstances that govern Internet access on the continent.
Internet penetration in Africa is about 16% (2012), with mobile phones providing most of the Internet connectivity.
Zero-rated services, which enable some mobile operators to provide access to minimalized version of the given service without data charges are a non-neutral approach. However, they have been responsible for bringing most of Africa's internet users online.
A 114% increase in the number of Facebook Zero users emphasizes this, as do efforts such as Google Free Zone and Wikipedia Zero.
The connectivity provided by zero-rated services such as the ones mentioned above, makes all the more a difference to Africans as traditional means of knowledge and communication (e.g. libraries) are mostly outdated and stagnant due to negligence.
Not much is known about the impact of zero-rated services like Facebook Zero and similar services beyond an increase in user base and some positive effects.
The non-availability of anonymous user options makes the user vulnerable and thus not completely free to express an opinion.
As a business platform too, the terms for popularity have become more stringent with Facebook's new algorithm making organic reach less. Businesses have to pay (for Ads) to increase their reach. The cost required by a business to make and maintain it's name may not be affordable by smaller businesses, thereby tilting the scale in favor of a richer, not better business.
As many innovation examples in Africa have demonstrated, the potential to innovate is substantial.
For ideas to be implemented as products, and laid out in the market, an open and free Internet (of which net neutrality is a subset) is essential.
Facebook and Google are proof of this.
The Dalberg Report states that:
One of the 'core infrastructure' characteristics for a thriving Internet economy is a business environment that makes starting a business hassle-free.
Net non-neutrality does the opposite by encouraging monopoly.
The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions made us aware of what an important role the Internet could play in protecting democracy by providing a platform for anyone to speak and organize.
Blogs expressing the common person's thoughts created a sense of awareness and got people to think about issues and share their thoughts before social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube made a mark. These blogs had an impact only because they could reach everybody online and were not discriminated against.
Thus net neutrality gave people the freedom of choice.
While there have been steps to localize the Internet traffic path to Africa, this has not yet been achieved.
As Internet penetration progress has come to Africa much later than to other countries the continent has to grapple with its own infrastructure constraints and issues such as net neutrality and censorship while it tries to harness the full potential of a free and open Internet by first making online access possible for all.
I do not know how this will happen.
Cover Image Credit: Michael Thompson