The US telecommunications regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), on December 14, 2017, voted 3 to 2, to repeal the principle of net neutrality in the country. This repeal means that the Internet has become a private good at the disposal of telecommunications operators; an action that has attracted heavy backlashes from activists, large technology companies and social platforms.
These bodies consider the repeal as tilting the scale in favor of telecoms providers such as AT & T (American Telephone & Telegraph) and Verizon, who could increase their bottom lines and engage in all kinds of financial arrangements that are no longer prohibited.
Net neutrality comprises a set of rules designed under the Obama administration that compelled internet service providers to treat all data that they carry without discrimination. That is, the principle did not permit content blockades, reduction in the speed or bandwidth for these contents, or charging end users for faster internet services.
This equality of treatment allowed users access to all the information contained on the global network, no matter the source.
Internet Without Borders (an NGO fighting internet restrictions), believes the FCC’s decision is a setback for emerging countries. This is because they are inspired by the American model to ensure their cyber development.
“The FCC vote is a step backward for free and accessible Internet for all without discrimination…We urge emerging countries, for whom the Internet is a major stake of economic development, to be inspired rather by these models.
The history of the global network has shown that only a free and open Internet inspires innovators, promotes research, the creation of goods and services, and thus creates wealth” according to Julie Owono, Executive Director of Internet Without Borders.
There are possibilities of African governments using this repeal as an argument to intensify internet restrictions. This include blocking particular websites, especially in times of political crisis.
Many conservative and revolutionary African leaders have become accustomed to restricting internet access during electioneering periods and/or rising political tensions. At least 12 countries have had internet shutdowns, for the above reasons, with the most recent being; Togo, Gambia and Cameroon.
The spillover effect
The vote on net neutrality has already had consequences in Senegal. It could also potentially embolden the present internet restrictions in English Cameroon. In Senegal, a draft law on electronic communications is already under review in parliament. The law, seeks to empower the telecom regulator, to compel operators take management measures on traffic that they deem useful.
In Cameroon, internet service providers and local digital technology startups, reportedly lost about $38 million. This was due to the bandwidth restrictions and social media blockade, currently imposed by government on the two English-speaking regions. These regions act as hubs for digital marketing and tech startups.
Government cut off Internet connection from the two regions for 93 days during the first quarter of 2017. Bandwidth restriction and social media blockage has remained in force since October 1st 2017, due to the sociopolitical upheavals.
It is therefore necessary for human rights activists, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and related Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Africa, to begin a serious campaign against the restriction of access to internet services by more African governments.
Internet accessibility, as an indispensable service for sustainable economic development in 21st century Africa, cannot be overemphasized. There must be a reasonable and clear demarcation between unlimited supply of internet services and political scheming by African governments. This avoid constant arbitrary interruptions in online economics activities.