Published on July 26th, 2016 | by admin0
NET NEUTRALITY THREATENED
APPEARANCES ARE THAT NAMIBIAN INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDERS ARE UNDERMINING THE PRINCIPLE THAT ALLOWS EQUAL ACCESS TO AND FOR ALL, WRITES MAX WEYLANDT
Namibian Internet service providers (ISPs) like to attract users with promotions that include free data for certain web services. For example, MTC’s range of Aweh mobile packages (Super Aweh, Aweh Gig, and so on) includes several packages that come with bonus social media data — like the Super Aweh package, which offers users 350MB of regular data, and 700 MB data that may only be used for Whatsapp and Facebook. This sort of deal is not restricted to mobile Internet. Both MTC and Paratus Telecom have recently advertised deals where new customers get 100GB a month in free data for Netflix, the popular entertainment service which lets users stream thousands of movies and TV shows for a monthly fee. Customers might rejoice, but they should not, for this sort of arrangement is likely not in their interest as it violates the principle of ‘net neutrality’. Net neutrality is the notion that all data that users request should be treated equally by their service provider. That means they should not slow down certain types of web traffic (as several ISPs have done with streaming video) or speed up others, and it also means they should not charge extra for some types of data compared to others. And while the issue is unknown to most people who use the Internet on a daily basis, it is arguable the key policy issue in shaping the future of the Internet and its impact on society.
WHY NET NEUTRALITY?
As the gatekeepers between consumers and the Internet, ISPs wield a huge amount of power. Analogies in other sectors show just how much. Imagine Nampower strikes a deal with a manufacturer of mini fridges, where NamPower charges a higher rate per kilowatt for electricity going to full-sized fridges. For many customers, it becomes too expensive to buy (or keep using) a large fridge, and they have to stuff their food into a mini-fridge. Nampower and the mini-fridge supplier are happy, but other manufacturers lose out — as do consumers, who likely would have preferred larger fridges. Or imagine NamWater endorses a particular brand of shower head, and throttles the pumps to houses where competitors are installed, leaving people to shiver under dripping pipes in winter unless they’ve bought the one brand that allows full pressure. Apart from being technically implausible, these scenarios strike us as laugh able — of course providers of electricity and water cannot decide what we use those goods for. Advocates for net neutrality argue that the Internet is a utility, not just a product, because of its importance to everyone trying to play a part in the modern economy. They believe just as NamPower can’t dictate what you use your power for, your ISP should not be allowed to influence your choices in regards to your data.
In Namibia, there are no regulations on the subject. In responding to questions on the matter, CRAN said that not only are there no regulations, but that “the Authority is currently not considering drafting” any. The Communications Act’s provisions on consumer protection are frustratingly specific and do not include a general duty to protect consumers’ interests that could be interpreted in favour of net neutrality. So, to be clear, none of the Namibian ISPs are doing anything illegal with their promotions. In fact, they might argue they are benefiting consumers. “Paratus Telecom supports net neutrality”, the company told Insight in response to questions, “and in a bid to support consumer freedom of choice, [services such as Netflix] should be embraced by operators instead of being restricted.” Fair enough, Paratus is not restricting any services directly. That is one half of the equation. But they go on to argue that “it would be prejudicial from a journalistic perspective” to criticise the promotion, because it comes as a response to consumers wanting streaming services. Is it prejudicial to suggest a company violates net neutrality when it promotes one web service over another? Yes, no competitor to Netflix is blocked or its data slowed down, but they are surely still disadvantaged. What happens to African streaming services such as iROKOtv and ShowMax, who are trying to provide local competition to this international behemoth? When customers pick between their streaming services, but only get free data for one of them, they are unlikely to choose the Nigerian startup over Netflix. Handing out free data for one service makes it effectively cheaper to use, and by implication raises the prices of its competitors. ISPs like talking about expanding their customers’ choice, but the reality is this: in the end, surely the consumers are paying for the data anyway. It’s unlikely service providers are making a loss with these deals. So they are paying for data, but the ISP chooses what they get to use it for. This is hardly consumer choice. All of this has troubling implications for the future. With no net neutrality regulations, and ISPs not particularly invested in the idea, the system is prone to abuse. Today, customers get ‘free’ data for one service, while others become indirectly more expensive. Tomorrow, service providers might decide to simply charge extra for streaming services in general, or the one you like most and nothing could stop them. Since its dawn, the Internet has promised to be a democratising force, a place of innovation from which everyone could benefit. The greatest threat to this ideal is the potential creation of a two-tiered Internet, where only those with deep pockets get to access the sites and services they want. Without net neutrality being enforced, that might be a reality very soon — and these recent deals may well be the testing ground.
MTC, PARATUS AND NETFLIX
Movie buffs would have been excited at a pair of promotions by MTC and Paratus Telecom, which promised new users 100GB free Netflix data each month. The deals, while enticing, seemed strange because Netflix— despite occasionally questionable behaviour of its own — has been one of the most prominent advocates of net neutrality in the U.S. Insight can reveal that Netflix did not endorse the promotions offered by MTC and Paratus. The company told Insight that: “We were not aware of this offer and it is not sanctioned by us. We will use appropriate channels to request it to be ended”. Paratus confirmed there was no official deal, saying that “we have not entered into an agreement with Netflix, and do not receive any sponsorship of data costs from Netflix”. MTC did not respond to Insight’s questions on the matter. However, the advertisements for the promotion were removed from the MTC website in early July. Neither MTC, Facebook or Whatsapp responded to questions on whether the bonus data included in MTC’s range of Aweh bundles comes from an official agreement between the companies.