Are data providers contributing to the digital divide?

04 December 2017 - 11:33 By Craig Wilson
Companies with vested interests in users having a good experience with their product, such as Netflix, find themselves needing to cosy up to connectivity providers.
Companies with vested interests in users having a good experience with their product, such as Netflix, find themselves needing to cosy up to connectivity providers.
Image: 123rf/dennizn

"Net neutrality" means internet and cellphone service providers, and all companies that connect consumers to the internet, are legally obliged to treat all data equally.

In other words, a company can't prioritise WhatsApp messages over Netflix video streams, or e-mail over cat pictures. Why does this matter? Because if service providers can cherry-pick which data gets preference they can - and usually do - shape their products accordingly.

Suddenly paid add-ons pop up for messaging, or media streaming, or anything else you do online, while the services that benefit the provider are discounted or zero-rated (which means the provider offers the service free to consumers and absorbs the cost itself).

Meanwhile, companies with vested interests in users having a good experience with their product - such as Netflix, Showmax and other high-demand data services - find themselves needing to cosy up to connectivity providers. Which makes it tougher for new entrants to the market to compete: they need to make sure their data costs don't put off would-be customers.

In short, it means two internets emerge - an all-access, unfettered version for those who can afford it, and a piecemeal, limited one for those who can't. It should be obvious why that's a bad thing: limiting discourse makes shaping it that much easier. Do we really want the average South African's only access to news to be zero-rated Facebook?

Where does South Africa stand? Ostensibly in favour of net neutrality, there are plenty of instances where it has been sidestepped. Media-streaming services such as Telkom's Lit and Cell C's Black - which both benefit from preferential treatment from their respective parent networks - are examples.

Telecommunications regulator Icasa has indicated it is considering forcing network operators to keep data bundles valid for up to three years from time of purchase (currently, smaller bundles can expire in days while 1GB tends to expire after a month).

Without such initiatives, we risk broadening the already enormous digital divide. Since many still battle to get online cheaply, it would be an insult to have them find a limited version of the internet offered to them when they do.

• The author of this article, Craig Wilson, is the editor of Stuff magazine.

• This article was originally published in The Times

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