Those promoting net neutrality as a means of ensuring the internet remains a place of opportunity for entrepreneurs and innovators have not fully understood the problems it causes for innovative services, according to Ryan Yoder, executive director at Cameroonian incubator ActivSpaces.
In a blog post, Yoder responded to a guest post written for Disrupt Africa last month by South Africa’s shadow minister of communications Marian Shinn, who said net neutrality was relevant to Africa if entrepreneurs are to avoid being locked out of Africa’s online growth.
Shinn said that as the offers from global internet players to give Africa a “hand-up into their world” increase, the continent might find it comes with the prioritisation of internet access for “bandwidth-hogging” services such as YouTube and Netflix.
“This has the potential to deny quality access to smaller players who need the level playing field of net neutrality to gain visibility and markets in a clamouring online world,” Shinn wrote.
However, Yoder disputes this view, saying though the net neutrality movement had been promoted by well-intended people, they had not truly understood the problem with it.
“While promoting net neutrality, they have already killed innovative services. However, the only innovations they have protected are future imagined startups that don’t yet exist, and may never exist,” he said.
Yoder wrote that even the most basic understanding of net neutrality exposed the folly of its promoters.
“Net neutrality guarantees that that all network traffic is treated equally. No company can pay to put their website in the “fast lane”, which sounds nice,” he said.
“But if we really think about what we’re saying it doesn’t sound as good anymore. Should all traffic really be treated equally? If your mother is making an emergency phone call and the call is routed over the same line as her neighbours torrent of porn, should both really be treated equally? Would we not all agree that the emergency call should be put in the fast lane?”
He said it was obvious hypothetically that not all traffic should be treated equally all the time, but there were other real life examples of how net neutrality would stifle innovation, such as the Chilean government in 2013 cancelling free Wikipedia for its citizens.
“This universal access to information is the exact thing net neutrality supporters are supposedly championing but that their policies are killing,” he said, suggesting net neutrality would kill innovative services such as the Internet.org app, which allows Kenyans and Zambians to browse a set of useful health, employment and local information services without data charges.
“Net Neutrality will crush this innovative service and prevent accessing these services for free,” he said.
Yoder said what makes this issue all the more important for Africa is the continent’s severely underdeveloped network infrastructure.
“If you have a 50 megabit connection at home, a dumb pipe – net neutrality – might make sense. But when you are trying to squeeze as many bits as possible through through a very slow completely saturated connection, you may want to innovate on how you manage traffic,” he said.
“Let network operators regulate their traffic as they wish, until it becomes a problem, not before. Regulating problems that only exist in our future imaginations will end up causing more problems than it solves.”