The internet is broken.This rallying call is stronger than ever. There is mounting evidence of social media fuelling fake news, erosion of privacy and the ubiquitous nature of online harassment and hate speech in our cyber spaces.
Moral panic aside, however, there is a lot that the internet gets right. Network neutrality, a defining principle of the internet and the bedrock of internet freedom, has allowed the internet to become the vibrant, diverse and equalising force that it is.
On December 14, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States voted to repeal the Obama-era Open Internet Order that prevented Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from discriminating between content on the internet. Nighat Dad, the founder of Digital Rights Foundation, views this development with alarm: “Net neutrality is an issue of internet freedom; this principle is the backbone of what makes the internet free and democratic.”
Under net neutrality, service providers who provide access to the internet, do not get to influence content that you access on the internet. It prevents ISPs from blocking disfavoured content, “bandwidth throttling” (altering internet speeds of particular data), and implementing paid prioritisation. The FCC repeal will allow service providers to create a “two-tier internet” consisting of a fast and slow lane. This permits ISPs to charge content providers a higher price to join the “fast lane” — having direct implications for smaller companies and start-ups trying to compete in an unequal market.
On the flip side, the ISPs posit that differential treatment is necessary to account for the varying amount of bandwidth taken up by different content. The argument goes that while accessing the online version of your go-to news website does not require much bandwidth, streaming platforms like Netflix and YouTube take up the bulk of the traffic on the internet; thus it makes sense that they pay proportionately for the space they occupy.
The increased revenues, they claim, will be used to develop internet infrastructure and ultimately benefit the end-user. Karachi-based internet rights activist, Hija Kamran, believes that the economic argument is missing one crucial component: equity. Arguing for net neutrality, Kamran says that “the pay-as-you-go approach may make sense at first, but on ethical grounds, it’s the violation of people’s right to access a vast set of data, leaving those behind who can’t pay sky-rocketing tariffs for content that is not zero-rated. It signifies that platforms which require higher bandwidth, like YouTube, are only for the rich.”
The FFC’s decision has been a monumental blow to internet freedom worldwide. Net neutrality is a human rights issue and its erosion raises concerns for online free speech, freedom to innovate and fair competition. Given that a bulk of internet companies are located in the United States, the rest of the world is waiting with bated breath for the spill-over effects of the repeal. The FCC’s move has the potential of driving up subscription prices for pay-for services such as Netflix, since companies will look to pass on the price of admission for “fast lanes” to consumers worldwide.
In the long-term, Pakistan faces an inevitable debate of its own on net neutrality. There is no formal law guaranteeing net neutrality in the country. For instance, while the Broadband Quality of Service Regulations 2014 allow the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to keep checks on ISPs to maintain network availability and link speed, these indicators are not grounded in net neutrality. So while ISPs have to maintain certain speeds, there is no requirement for internet speech to be uniform and non-discriminatory for all content.
This legal ambiguity has allowed for service providers and global giants to slowly chip away at net neutrality in Pakistan. Despite Facebook’s vocal support for net neutrality in the United States, it has pushed its “Free Basics” programme in less developed economies. Under the garb of philanthropy, Facebook partners with mobile networks to provide free access to its service and other Facebook-approved sites, while data charges still apply for the rest of the internet. This gives Facebook an in-built competitive advantage over other platforms and puts forth a highly restrictive and controlled version of the internet. “Free Basics” was introduced in Pakistan in 2015; currently Zong offers free WhatsApp on its network and Telenor has its “Facebook Flex” offer. Furthermore, Facebook has been holding closed-door meetings with the Pakistan government, entertaining demands to remove blasphemous content in exchange for development of its Free Basics agenda.
Although the government’s rhetoric about the digitalisation of Pakistan is everywhere, future innovation and investment in start-ups hinges on how we handle this debate. According to Sébastien Soriano, the Chairman of the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, net neutrality is not simply about maintaining the status quo or preserving the internet as is; it is about an enabling environment allowing growth through innovation and new ideas. If net neutrality is not upheld within Pakistan, local start-ups will not be able to compete with international players who are able to afford to pay a higher premium to stay in the “fast lane”.
There is, however, some cause for optimism.
Despite its technical nature, net neutrality has proven to be a popular issue worldwide. Polls show overwhelming bipartisan support among the American public for net neutrality rules. In the Global South, India stands as an example of a developing economy rejecting Facebook’s Free Basics programme. Despite a PR offensive by Facebook’s corporate machinery and implicit support from the Modi government, the “Save the Internet” movement was able to rally public support which culminated in the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruling that no ISP can offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services based on content. In November 2017, the TRAI released its recommended rules on net neutrality, which are being touted as among the most progressive in the world.
In Pakistan, it is important to frame the net neutrality debate as one of equal access and position the internet as a public utility. As evidenced by the contradictory stances taken by internet giants, we cannot rely on corporations to fight this fight — the resistance has to come from rights groups, civil society and ordinary citizens. It will not be easy, but as efforts of internet activists around the world have shown us, it can be done.