The US Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision to repeal net neutrality rules means US internet service providers (ISPs) can slow or block websites and apps as they see fit or charge more for faster speeds.
This is a worrying development not only for internet users, but also for media houses, whose services to their audience may be impacted if ISPs choose to target them. It may also give bigger players a massive advantage.
The now-defunct net neutrality laws stated that all web traffic, whether streaming video (very bandwidth intensive) or text-based news website browsing, or social media, must be treated equally.
Toby Shapshak, managing director of Stuff Magazine, explains the implications of the new laws. “ISPs and telcos will be able to decide who pays for better bandwidth, forcing the likes of YouTube, Netflix, Facebook and Amazon to pay more so their content gets prioritised into so-called fast lanes. On the face of it, with Netflix and YouTube consuming an estimated half of all internet traffic through their video offerings, it seems financially prudent for the ISPs. But their focus is profitability, not freedom of speech or access to information,” he says.
Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, says the move will damage small players and non-profit organisations because they can’t afford to buy prioritisation, limiting competition to just the big groups.
Hence concerns have been voiced that now big tech companies can control what people see and do online. Shapshak describes the move as “having the most far-reaching effects on the internet and how we all access it. It has the potential to be very, very bad for free speech”.
But all this is taking place in America; what is the state of net neutrality locally?
SA government committed to enforcing net neutrality
At a press briefing, Alf Wiltz, chief director for telecommunications and IT policy at the department of telecommunications and postal services, reassured South Africans that “government has not abandoned net neutrality”. The issue will likely be dealt with in the upcoming Electronic Communications & Transactions Amendment Bill, with the white paper identifying communications regulator Icasa as the body chosen to deal with the subject.
The body will hold an inquiry and then make proposals and recommendations to the minister on whether changes to legislation are required to reinforce net neutrality and, if yes, what those amendments are.
The paper also states, “Government is committed to promoting net neutrality to preserve the free Internet and pre-empt possible unfair treatment by intermediaries”.
No formal state of net neutrality
This move from government should be a welcome one for South Africans, as it formalises the state of net neutrality, something which is currently not present in the country. “It’s generally accepted that net neutrality should apply in South Africa,” says Goldstuck.
He says our current situation prioritises classes or types of data. For example file sharing is given lower priority by most ISPs and is in fact throttled, and video sharing is also given lower priority unless the user is on a specified streaming service. But Goldstuck stresses this applies mostly to ADSL and mobile data, with fibre not seeing much prioritisation.
Asked whether he sees the US’ moves possibly making their way to South African shores, Goldstuck replied this is highly unlikely. “There’s a general consensus that what’s happened in the US is a symptom of the parochial kind of philosophy that Donald Trump brings to US politics. It’s in line with other moves he’s made, moving towards a more isolationist America,” he explains.
“Generally, most of what is happening under the US administration is an emphasis on conservative types of approaches that are friendly to big business and canning net neutrality is basically a pro-big business move. South Africa has a hybrid environment that will continue for the foreseeable future.”
The ideal situation for South Africa would eliminate throttling, but with the country still being a bandwidth constrained environment, it seems ISPs have no choice but to throttle bandwidth, particularly to services like file sharing. But throttling video streaming is not in the best interest, as it is the main use of high speed broadband in South Africa.
Difficult to regulate
Not everyone is as positive about the state of net neutrality in South Africa. Marketing and media analyst, Chris Moerdyk, bluntly states it doesn’t exist in South Africa. He describes the concept as “wishful thinking” and believes that “no matter what regulations are put in place, it is going to be incredibly difficult to monitor”.
He refers to ISPs in SA as wily and denialists, recounting a situation he had with a service provider who swore they were not throttling, but subsequently he found out they were. “No regulator could possibly pick up a situation like that,” he comments, adding, “Competition is not making much difference as people get locked into contracts and once a person is in one, the ISPs can do whatever they like to you.”
Moerdyk also has a stern message for South African media houses. “A lot of them don’t understand the digital environment as well as they should. They have spent so many years involved in conventional media that they still largely look at the digital world in the same way as they look at conventional media, they are completely different!”
While it seems net neutrality is arguably safe, for the moment, in South Africa, the same can’t be said for the US. Goldstuck perfectly summed up the situation, saying, “Policy on net neutrality is a canary in a coal mine in that it highlights a toxic attitude towards open environments and competition. It’s a dark day when a country like the United States sees net neutrality as something to be killed off.”
Michael Bratt is a multimedia journalist at Wag the Dog Publishers, publishers of The Media Online and The Media. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelBratt8