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Net neutrality key to robust democracy

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South Africa’s Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) believes discrimination should not feature in the country’s online or real-world environments. The association says there should, therefore, be no blocking or prioritisation of lawful websites, content, applications or services.
“Net neutrality affects every one of South Africa’s Internet users,” says ISPA regulatory advisor, Dominic Cull. “An independent judiciary, regular elections, and a free press are traditionally seen as some of the most important hallmarks of a functioning democracy. To this list should be added net neutrality, or the inability of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), government or major corporations to discriminate against Internet traffic or content they don’t want you to access.”
South Africa currently exists in a net neutral environment that requires protection. Taking away net neutrality could radically slow the connections of local web users as Internet sites that require lots of streaming data are blocked due to cost concerns. Censorship, too, could flourish in an online world without net neutrality.
ISPA is encouraged that the importance of this principle has recently been explicitly recognised by the Deputy Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize, at a speech given at the Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Summit, held in Barcelona on 24 February 2016. The Deputy Minister was unequivocal: “All Internet traffic must be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference, regardless of the sender, receiver, content, device, service, or application.”
Cull says: “A net neutrality policy does not preclude reasonable and transparent network management by ISPs, but must prevent anti-competitive behaviour where selected data traffic is prioritised because of its low cost, or because its content pleases those in charge.”
Network management practices, performance and commercial terms of broadband Internet access services (including any shaping or capping of bandwidth-hungry services) must be clearly advertised to enable consumers to make informed choices regarding their use of such services. Consumers must also be informed of any “fair use” policies, the emphasis being on fairness to other network users, rather than the operator.
ISPA is looking forward to the next local net neutrality milestone which is the drafting of a white paper that was supposed to be published by the end of March 2016, Cull adds.
The recommendations set out in the National Integrated ICT Policy Review Report published in March this year advocate South Africa adopting an “open Internet policy” incorporating the broad principles of net neutrality centred on the non-discrimination of Internet traffic, with the detail being left to be dealt with by ICASA.
“The Internet was born neutral and that single most important founding principle should always be top-of-mind,” Cull says.