Is it really reasonable and realistic to have an Open Internet?

The 5th edition of the Internet Freedom Forum, IFF 2017, was educative, engaging and insight-filled. It was one of those events where you would learn so much in three days, than in six months of a typical Nigerian University semester. Instead of exorbitant tuition fees, it was free, and while students usually have strikes, there were very convenient and relaxed breaks – for good lunch and fine wine.

More seriously though, IFF 2017 was fantastic, and as much as we want to, we are not going to be able to go over the many interesting issues discussed. But, we will give it a shot. This first piece of inquizimedia’s review is about the pre-forum event by the Alliance for Affordable Internet, which was focused on the issues of Net Neutrality, Open Internet and Affordable Internet in Nigeria.

Net Neutrality, according to the presentation by Onica Makwakwa, is “the principle that all internet traffic should be treated the same”. That would imply that no aspect of the content on the internet should be unavailable to people, so that whatever it is that has been made accessible by the creators of content on the internet should not be prevented by regulators or Governments. This accessibility is bounding for all places at all times.

As the policy manager for the World Wide Web Foundation, Nnenna Nwakanma, put it, “all of the people, all of the internet, all of the time”.

Some of the principles of Net Neutrality include, but are not limited to the “protection of the rights and interests of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and consumers, improving competition by addressing issues of traffic management,” and “providing jointly agreed and effective solutions to the issues of discriminatory traffic management practices.”

While the protection of consumer and ISPs’ rights are relatively easy to relate with and champion, there are more sensitive conversations regarding improving competition, and debating traffic management and discrimination.

For instance, improving competition is more an issue in countries where there are stringent limitations on the issuance of permits and licenses for operating in the ICT space. In these places, like Ethiopia where there is a single ISP for the whole country which is owned by the Government, it makes it easier for unwanted controls and shut downs to be done by the Government.

Achieving a disruption through these barriers would take bold concerted efforts, as it goes beyond just technical issues. How do you navigate through the murky waters of political propaganda and sociological biases to convince the Governments that EVERY part of the internet – including the opinions of dissenters – will be available to everyone? It may not involve directly pushing for a change in the system of Government entirely, pushing for a shift to more liberal political systems. However, it is not rocket science to decipher the fears of the not-so-democratic leaders; the more open communications are within a system, the more voices can aggregate to take actions against it.

In line with the political challenges are also the worries of the “moralists”. During one of the Q & A sessions on the final day, the passionate suggestion was made by a participant, who wanted so badly the expurgation, from the internet, of pornographic influences. He wasn’t directly answered on that, but the silence from the hall – with a good section of the audience already updated on the principles of net neutrality from Day 0 – expressed the difficulty of the inquiry.

It is probable to assume that a significant number of persons may be against Net Neutrality if preached as “all content, all people, all the time”. The truth of that description is that every person who has the right to own and use an internet-connected telephone can access ALL internet content. It is a reality which many socio-religious circles will need time to come to term with. Already, there is a considerable aversion towards the internet by many, transferring to it the long-held grudge against the TV as ‘the evil box’…

But that would not be the true, and it would only play into the hands of those who seek to stifle the privilege of free and honest self-expression. The greater the threat to net neutrality, the more the apathy towards attracting those large-scale, capital-intensive investments in access and infrastructure that should increase jobs and innovation, which translate to healthier economies.

Rather than the approach of an “unlimited access” kind of pleasure, Net Neutrality will gain sociological acceptance if presented as a public utility, with the same level of necessity as water, electricity and good roads. Maybe thinking of “water no get enemy”, you may concede that the internet, perhaps, has more risks. But who says the issue of electrocutions, falling electric poles, and the use of tar and asphalt – with their health implications – are all foregone conclusions?

Consider the economic losses to the Cameroonian people in the 94 days of the January to April shutdown, the fresher on campus who is leaving home for the first time and can show his mum and siblings his room in a 360-degree live video call on the first day in the hostel, and the possibility of an internet-assisted birth (yea, it was only a movie, but…); the tangible economic, human, and life-and-death values become undeniable.

If there had to be one, the big stumbling block for Net Neutrality would be drawing a line between unrestricted access to online behavior, and taking advantage of the internet to communicate actions legally defined as indefensible. The case of killings on Facebook easily come to mind, but as well those whose moral standing is still open to the jury – as in broadcasted suicides – are also sensitive flashpoints. Mark Zuckerberg too is having headaches about that.

How can these be tackled, without injuring the right to free access? What defines “hate and dangerous” speech? In the peculiar, multi-ethnic, religiously-conscious Nigerian case, what statements can be defined as “inflammatory” or “disrespectful to elders”? When it is time for discussions to define these terms, whose thesis should be used? There was a parallel session on these matters, but even the panelists have continued to elaborate on their divergences on twitter.

These are difficult conversations, but it is not impossible to have workable agreements. There’s not a single invention since the scientific revolution, most of which are largely taken for granted today, which has not been greeted with serious reservations, from alcohol and the printing press, through Edison’s electric bulb and even the sliced bread machine!

Nnenna and most of the other panelists were apt when they reiterated that the policy-making process would have to be a multi-stakeholder, consultative continuum. Everyone from faith-based actors, the academia, technocrats and bureaucrats would need to draw from each other around the policy table, to present evidence of what has worked and what can be worked out.

Essentially, how do we make all of the internet, work in the best possible way, for all of the people, all of the time?

#DifficultConversations #IFF2017


DISCLAIMER: This review is only a reflection of the opinions of the Editor on some aspects of the proceedings at the IFF 2017 event. It does not in any way claim to be the definitive explanation or summary of the activities carried out and does not define the position of any of the panelists, participants, sponsors and organizers of the event, including Paradigm Initiative. The ideas and issues mentioned in this article, with some names related to them, were discussed in the open, either at plenary or parallel sessions; none were under the Chatham House rules. Hence, no legal claims can be made against the author or the proprietors of this publication based on the views expressed in this article. However, we welcome your comments and opinions on the subject, to continue the conversation. All correspondence should be referred to

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.