How the mission for Internet equality is playing out around the world – CNET

Internet equality law in the US is having a birthday. Dig out the party hats, but don’t celebrate too hard. It’s only one chapter in a global debate that is set to define how we use the Internet for years to come.

It was exactly one year ago that the US Federal Communications Commission adopted rules saying that all Internet traffic must be treated equally, a concept commonly referred to as Net neutrality. It was a momentous victory for supporters of an open Internet in the US, but it also served as a conversation starter around the world. It turned out that the ruling was the first in a series of landmark decisions about Net neutrality.

Following in the footsteps of the US, Europe firmed up its own Net neutrality legislation, even though it was widely derided by critics for major shortcomings. In particular, a provision that would allow for the creation of Internet fast lanes. Fast-forward to the start of 2016 and all eyes were fixed on India, which last month passed its own Net neutrality legislation and rejected Facebook’s attempts to provide free, but selective, Internet service.

The global debate over Net neutrality is critical because many see it not just about getting your email or cat videos, but as an opportunity to foster what human civilization has long struggled with: equality.

“Access to information is a great equalizer and is a prerequisite for democratic participation,” said Josh Levy, advocacy director for digital rights group Access Now.

A complex debate

That struggle is different in every country, and is often defined by how much access its citizens get. In the US, the Net neutrality debate has focused on very specific issues such as whether to prioritize traffic from video services like Netflix, sometimes boiling down whether it can pay for a fast lane to ensure that “House of Cards” doesn’t freeze up on your TV.

But it’s India’s recent push that has complicated the global debate about online equality. It’s not just equality for Netflix traffic versus Instagram traffic, but the kind of issue that has the potential to fundamentally transform societies and reconcile the haves and have-nots of the world.

India’s telecom regulator earlier this month rejected Facebook’s plan to bring poorer Indians online through a program called “Free Basics,” which would give them free access to specific Internet services controlled by Facebook. Facebook argued the program would bring people online who otherwise would have no access to the Internet. Critics argued it would create a two-tier Internet that would reinforce existing inequalities in society and make users entirely reliant on Facebook for Internet access.

During a keynote speech at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, Zuckerberg described India’s decision as a “disappointment for this mission and of what we’re trying to do.”

Facebook CEO ​Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.


Stephen Shankland/CNET

With the Internet’s ability to power an economy, many emerging nations like India are working on building out their online access, preferring to do it with home-grown services rather than rely on support from world superpowers.

That’s how Free Basics fell into the sights of regulators. India’s decision will have a “seismic impact,” Levy predicts, on the rest of South Asia and Africa, where nations are establishing their own Internet economies and eventually have to deal with Net neutrality.

A ‘mainstream’ conversation

The global debate is gathering momentum. Between 2010 and 2014 only three countries — Chile, Israel and the Netherlands — put laws in place to protect Net neutrality, according to the World Wide Web Foundation’s Web Index report. Over the last year alone, we’ve seen the EU, the US and India join the club.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, regulators and the tech industry have been closely following the proceedings across all three regions, according to Nanjira Sambuli, research manager at iHub in Nairobi, Kenya. “I think it’s just about to become a more ‘mainstream’ conversation,” she said.

The US and much of Europe came online as the Web giants of the world were still evolving and could therefore afford to take their time in pondering Net neutrality issues. But with global tech companies poised with their own plans for Internet in countries coming online, those nations don’t have the same luxury of waiting until broadband is established to make key decisions about an open Internet.

“The Indian decision makes it clear that broadband buildout and open Internet policy are closely related,” said Levy. “So populous countries like Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria, Philippines, and others are no doubt taking a close look at Free Basics and the need to maintain strong Net neutrality protections.”

A different view

Not everyone views Net neutrality as the catalyst for online equality. Opponents believe it’ll actually have the opposite effect.

Josh Steimle, author and founder of marketing agency MWI, is concerned that Net neutrality legislation will lead to the “politicization of the Internet, the selective enforcement, the lawsuits, and the uncertainty.” Large companies are well placed to deal with the rules, meaning small companies “automatically lose.”

MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte doesn’t believe all elements of Net neutrality are themselves equal. While he takes issue with Free Basics, he believes some traffic should be prioritized. “The few bits per hour from your Internet-connected pacemaker are more important than the megabits per second needed for a movie,” he said.

The need to balance the connected pacemaker with universal access to the Internet illustrates the nuances of the debate.

Perhaps an Internet like the one imagined by Negroponte is the answer. “Internet access should be free, like streetlights and sidewalks,” he said. “Yes, it costs money, but not yours directly. It is part of civics — a mission not a market.”

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