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Net Neutrality – Will The US Repeal Affect SA?

Author: Jason Snyman
Date: 2018-01-05
The US FCC has voted to repeal Net Neutrality, giving Big ISP more power over new businesses and poorer people. What does that mean for SA?
Ah yes, the good old US of A. Their Patriot Act isn’t very patriotic. Their Affordable Care Act isn’t exactly affordable and now – their Net Neutrality Act isn’t neutral. When a government tries to spin something off as good, chances are it won’t be. It’ll be the exact opposite. Some of you may not know what Net Neutrality is, and at this point you’re too afraid to ask. It boils down to this; it’s the dullest thing on earth to read about, but it’s important. You may even find that you don’t care about this stuff... Tell us more about how much you love slow internet.  

What Is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality is the principle that all data or internet traffic should be treated equally. Internet traffic includes the use of apps or services that most of us use every single day. Messages, emails, digital video or audio files, streaming, etc. If all platforms, websites and content were treated equally, that would be ideal. And by equally, we mean that one person should have the same speed of internet that somebody else does, and it costs the same amount of money. Seems fair, right? Well in the USA, that’s all changing. Net Neutrality means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not allowed to ‘discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication.’ Under these principles, ISPs are not permitted to intentionally block, slow down (throttle) or charge extra money for specific websites and online content. Of course, this did nothing to stop big companies such as Verizon, Comcast or AT&T from violating them. Comedian, John Oliver, explained Net Neutrality and the position of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in the most entertaining way possible. You can watch Episode One, Two and Three to form your own opinion about it. Warning for sensitive viewers, Oliver has a particular way with words. On December 14, the US FCC voted to repeal Net Neutrality. As a result, the citizens and start-up companies of the USA are in for a frustrating time. That’s right; their ISPs may now do everything we’ve been afraid they would do. Block websites. Throttle connections. Charge more for faster internet. They’ve promised they won’t do any of these awful things… But… Come on. So what does this mean for the rest of the world, particularly South Africa?
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Net Neutrality and South Africa

The Net Neutrality problem has always been a USA phenomenon, mainly because of the way their market is set up. In the UK, for example, it is law. In South Africa, we have always had Net Neutrality – and also never really had it at all. There are no laws about it over here, and outside of policy it doesn’t even exist. October last year (2016) saw the publication of the Comprehensive ICT Policy White Paper. The paper lays out a clear policy position, in respect of net neutrality. The position is thus; that all internet traffic must be treated equally and without restriction, discrimination or intrusion. All traffic management processes by ISPs and Telecommunications Companies in South Africa need to be transparent. The White Paper explicitly recognises that these underlying principles that form the very nature of the internet need to be protected. We cannot halve the internet and separate it between the haves and have-nots. Those who can afford a connection and those who simply can’t. So, we have a commendable policy statement, but it doesn’t mean all that much until it is implemented. Here in South Africa, our current telecommunications regulator is ICASA. They’re the people fighting for Vodacom and MTN and Cell C to lower their data prices, etc. ICASA needs to review whether any regulation is required to establish the policy position, and it must then make recommendations to the Minister of Communications, who is now Ayanda Dlodlo, on whether or not any amendments to legislation need to be made, how to protect consumers by better defining ‘transparent fair network management’, etc. Of course, we have bigger problems in South Africa right now, and it may take a long while before we get around to something like Net Neutrality.

How Does The FCC Repeal Affect South Africa?

All governments seek to control the flow of information. We used to see it in print media and now increasingly all over Facebook, Twitter, Google and the rest of the internet. In SA we have the Films and Publications Amendment Bill and also the Cybercrime and Cybersecurity Bill, which protects us from cyberbullying, revenge porn or malicious communication, but also raises a number of concerns around freedom of speech. In effect, we may even be pitting one group of rights against another. The right to the freedom of expression on one hand and the rights against harmful hate speech on the other. The way it’s going, it may only be a matter of time until we’re no longer allowed to question politicians or criticize government. Though related, that’s all a story for another day. So does the US FCC decision to repeal Net Neutrality affect South Africa? Given the overabundance of massive networks and content in the US, what happens over there does have an impact on the rest of the world. If we, over here, try to access an American service and they have rules around prioritisation – that may prove to be a problem. If an ISP blocks, say, Skype from working, because it competes with their own products, you may not be able to Skype with those people. Will it impact us on a country level? Given the fresh new policy, probably not. ISPA (Internet Service Provider Association) regulatory advisor, Dominic Cull, in speaking with media update, had the following to say:
“If we want the next Facebook or Google or next big thing to come out of South Africa, then we’ve got to create space and be wary of allowing multinationals and incumbents to leverage their market power with offers to zero-rate access to selected content.”

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