If you are one of the 35.3 million Pakistani citizens who use the Internet, your digital freedom just suffered a monumental blow by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision to repeal net neutrality laws in the US.
On December 14, 2017, the FCC voted 3-2 in favour of repealing the Obama-era Open Internet Order, which prevented Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from discriminating between content on the Internet. Republican-designated executive, Ajit Pai, tipped the vote over the edge. In layman’s terms, the decision to move back “heavy handed” net neutrality rules means that ISPs will be able to block disfavoured content (i.e. bandwidth throttling) and create a two-tier internet with a slow and fast lane, where digital content providers must pay a higher price to join the “fast lane” (i.e. paid prioritisation).
The US regulators reason that allowing differential treatment by ISPs is necessary to account for the varying amount of bandwidth used by different content. Since streaming platforms, such as Netflix, take up more traffic on the Internet than most other websites, it only makes sense that they pay proportionately for the digital space they occupy. The increased revenue can then be used for greater investment and development in Internet infrastructure, which will ultimately benefit the common person.
Although this is a valid and sound economic argument, the FCC’s decision has faced a backlash from digital rights activists for ignoring one key aspect: equity.
Since streaming platforms, such as Netflix, take up more traffic on the Internet than most other websites, it only makes sense that they pay proportionately for the digital space they occupy
The US’s decision will have a spillover effect globally and the most immediate impact in Pakistan will be felt by digital start-up companies. The new two-tier model means that smaller start-ups, that lack resources and funding, will be left behind, as they are blocked or can’t afford to pay the skyrocketing price of admission into the “fast lane”. This is unethical and places young Pakistani entrepreneurs, who have the potential to create the next YouTube or Google, at yet another institutionalised systematic disadvantage. Speaking with Balochistan Voices, the director of Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan and member of the recently launched Global Net Neutrality Coalition campaign, Arzak Khan, said, “The internet’s success is due to its openness, equality of opportunity and innovation.” Repealing net neutrality and introducing the pay-as-you-go approach reduces this formula for success to an arbitrary money equation.
In Pakistan, digital rights are very limited, with service providers and global giants constantly undermining the principles of net neutrality. According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority annual report, 63% of Pakistanis have a mobile phone, including many of the 39% who live in poverty. Given this, the need to provide people with low incomes access to mobile Internet was seen as a huge business opportunity, which prompted the introduction of zero-rated services. In 2015, under the guise of philanthropy, Facebook implemented its famous “Free Basics” programme in Pakistan, whereby the social media giant partners with various mobile networks to provide free access to its services and other FB-approved sites on internet.org, whilst data charges apply for the rest of the Internet. An example of this currently in action is Telenor’s “Facebook Flex” offer.
While this does accomplish the goal of providing free mobile Internet access to the poor, it also has the very convenient side effects of giving Facebook an in-built competitive advantage over other platforms, increasing the firm’s monopoly power by being the only portal to connect with the online world, and providing a highly restricted and controlled version of the Internet to end-consumers. In this way, the formal lack of net neutrality laws in Pakistan lead to a less open Internet. Advocacy and policy officer at PEN International, Sarah Clarke, said, “Free access to an open internet…is an integral part of freedom of expression and must be maintained in the face of moves to restrict access to serve narrow interests.”
Digital censorship is already an important human rights issue in Pakistan, which will likely worsen in the post-net neutrality arena. And, in the long term, the possibility of the Internet falling under complete corporate control threatens increased prices for all users – imagine paying for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the popularity of zero-rated services in the country, there is deafening silence on the topic of net neutrality in Pakistan’s policy circles. Lawmakers in developing countries, such as Pakistan, generally look to the US as a model for digital freedom and, in this case, I fear that the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality laws has set a precedent that will hurt Pakistan’s vision of an open Internet. Supporting net neutrality laws from the previous Obama era is not a matter of maintaining the status quo; it is about ensuring an inclusive, enabling environment where anyone and everyone can access anything and everything on the Internet. As Pakistan becomes more digitalised, it requires increased cyber regulation to ensure digital freedom.
Looking forward, it is the government’s responsibility to invite a healthy and informed discussion on the topic and bring it into the public discourse, with any more delays in legislation risking the development of the Internet in Pakistan. However, as can be seen in the US and indeed worldwide, it is actually the media, rights groups, civil society and ordinary citizens who are leading the resistance to the FCC’s decision. Although the issue is unlikely to be prioritised today, given the high number of major development problems in the country, one can hope that Pakistan will eventually join the fight to save the Internet, as we know it.