We deserve affordable Internet

AS 2014 comes to a close, a ten-year debate continues to linger; one of the net neutrality of the internet and the cost at which it should be accessed.

AS 2014 comes to a close, a ten-year debate continues to linger; one of the net neutrality of the internet and the cost at which it should be accessed.

Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally.

The debate has hitherto been mainly in the US but it will soon be upon us if service providers in Rwanda or the region become of the opinion that they should have a say on who gets faster internet access at an extra cost, unlike currently where all web content is treated equally.

A close analogy to net neutrality would be the way we access tap water, which is a public utility.

As a public utility, it has to be a subsidised commodity: If you hike the price of tap water beyond a certain minimum cost affordable to all, it means that the cost may be too high for the poor among us to access it.

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognised the human right to water.

A similar argument can now be made for the internet. With the ubiquitous place the net has taken as a way of life in our everyday activities – from communication to commerce and access to services – one of the arguments is that it, too, should gain public utility status and be considered a human right.

Access to it should not be discriminatory on the basis of type, destination, origin or any other criteria.

However, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), mainly those in the West where the debate is raging, disagree. They would rather go for what is being described as “paid prioritisation”.

The ISPs are of the opinion that because of their big investments in telecommunication infrastructure used to carry content to the end-users, content providers should begin paying more for the service.

For instance, your email or YouTube video could be delivered faster at an extra cost.

Predictably, firms such as Google are opposed to this.

In essence, if the ISPs have their way, it means the Internet will be split into two categories: One for those who can afford high-speed network, and the other for those condemned to slow connectivity because they cannot afford the fast lane.

Depending on which way the matter will be resolved in the U.S., where it has taken political dimensions pitting the Democrats against the Republicans (the traditionally rich Republicans are mainly with the ISPs), we could see it being replicated here.

But it is not so much of a political issue, but rather one of policy.

I am not aware that our policymakers in the region have started a discussion on net neutrality or the form it should take. But debate on how Internet should be regulated locally and in the East African Community, in general, should be at the top of the agenda, if, as I suspect, discussion on it has not started yet.

I am for net neutrality – not just because I don’t mind affordable things – but for the good of all of us.

It is generally agreed that the Internet is the single greatest technology of our time. Therefore, control of it should not be at the mercy of the corporations who provide us with Internet service.

Without belabouring the point, the profit motive exhibited by some corporations the world over has at times been so strong that it has often tended to overlook the needs of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet a free an open Internet will not only promote the spread of ideas, but promote competition and, by the same token, innovation.

May our policymakers take heed before their hand is forced when our ISPs start propounding the argument of the “willing seller, willing buyer”, which is one the US service providers have been advancing.

The writer is a commentator on local and regional issues