Does that sound overly dramatic? Does that sound like a Hollywood blockbuster headline? Did it shock you? Did it make you a little concerned? Well; good! The fact of the matter is that this article speaks to something that is critically important to every single person on the planet.
“There are 2.4 billion people connected to the internet today. That number is expected to rise to 5 billion by 2020.”
Net Neutrality is what is currently being debated by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). So let’s unpack what Net Neutrality is all about first. Net Neutrality has also been referred to as Internet freedom or Internet openness. At its core, Net Neutrality forbids (yip, forbids!) telecommunications companies from blocking some websites or providing preferred priority to others. It prevents providers favouring one kind of traffic over another and guarantees that all traffic is treated equally.
The best example I have heard of to explain this concept a little better was likening it to your electricity provider. You pay a value for a quantified amount of electricity to be delivered to your home. This electricity comes (theoretically) at a certain standard so that it can effectively power the lights in your house; or your hifi, TV, fridge etc. Essentially this is “Electrical Neutrality”. The electricity company doesn’t tell you what appliances you can run or operate. If theoretical “electrical neutrality” was taken away, imagine a scenario where the electricity company “throttled” the electricity that was dedicated to powering your house lights – unless you bought their “super bright” package or used a specific bulb manufacturer.
In essence this is a similar scenario to net neutrality that is now being threatened. There is debate that ISPs are saying that they should be able to make money from content distribution networks who are willing to pay a premium for premium delivery of their content via the ISP.
Granted this is a very United States centric problem at the moment; but as we all know; when things happen in the “Land of the free”; they very quickly filter down to the rest of the minions (that’s us).
So back to the headline; the reason why the fate of the internet is going to be decided in 2014 is because the FCC’s proposed rules to govern (read curtail) Net Neutrality are still open for comment in the US for the next month (originally 60 days). According to leaked reports; the draft currently does make allowances for paid prioritisation of content.
I realise that as a country, South Africans have grown up with their service providers shaping and throttling their data. This was and with many ISPs is still commonplace. This however has not been done for any “real” (I say with MASSIVE air quotes) or direct monetary or political intent. This was done because the pipes coming into South Africa were simply not big enough to allow everyone access to everything all of the time. This was a case of ensuring that there was at least a trickle of access for everyone as opposed to a complete drought because the pipe was blocked.
In short, as South Africans (or rather as Africans) we need to be aware of this potentially huge threat to the openness and fairness of the internet and be sure that there are properly crafted regulations that govern and ensure true Net Neutrality on our continent.
As soon as ISPs and government shape / cap / throttle what we can access and the price at which we can access it; not only is the neutrality of the internet a thing of the past; but the very core innovative and dynamic nature of the internet comes under threat.