How the mission for Internet equality is playing out around the world

A year after the US adopted Net neutrality rules, the rest of the world is diving into the debate, with India currently leading the way.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
4 min read

Internet equality law in the US is having a birthday. Dig out the party hats, but don't celebrate too hard. It's only one chapter in a global debate that is set to define how we use the Internet for years to come.

It was exactly one year ago that the US Federal Communications Commission adopted rules saying that all Internet traffic must be treated equally, a concept commonly referred to as Net neutrality. It was a momentous victory for supporters of an open Internet in the US, but it also served as a conversation starter around the world. It turned out that the ruling was the first in a series of landmark decisions about Net neutrality.

Following in the footsteps of the US, Europe firmed up its own Net neutrality legislation, even though it was widely derided by critics for major shortcomings -- in particular, a provision that would allow for the creation of Internet fast lanes. Fast-forward to the start of 2016 and all eyes were fixed on India, which last month passed its own Net neutrality legislation and rejected Facebook's attempts to provide free, but selective, Internet service.

The global debate over Net neutrality is critical because many see it not just about getting your email or cat videos, but as an opportunity to foster what human civilization has long struggled to achieve: equality.

"Access to information is a great equalizer and is a prerequisite for democratic participation," said Josh Levy, advocacy director for digital rights group Access Now.

A complex debate

That struggle is different in every country, and is often defined by how much access its citizens get. In the US, the Net neutrality debate has focused on very specific issues such as whether to prioritize traffic from video services like Netflix. The complex issue sometimes boils down whether the company can pay for a fast lane to ensure that "House of Cards" doesn't freeze up on your TV.

But it's India's recent push that has complicated the global debate about online equality. It's not just a question of equality for Netflix traffic versus Instagram traffic, but rather how far to push the potential to fundamentally transform societies and reconcile the haves and have-nots of the world.

India's telecom regulator earlier this month rejected Facebook's plan to bring poorer Indians online through a program called Free Basics, which would deliver free access to specific Internet services controlled by the world's largest social network. Facebook argued that the program would bring people online who otherwise would have no access to the Internet. Critics countered that it would create a two-tier Internet that reinforces existing inequalities in society and makes users entirely reliant on Facebook for Internet access.

During a keynote speech at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, Facebook CEO Zuckerberg described India's decision as a "disappointment for this mission and of what we're trying to do."

With the Internet's ability to power an economy, many emerging nations like India are working on building out their online access, preferring to do it with home-grown services rather than rely on support from global superpowers.

Facebook CEO ​Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.
Enlarge Image
Facebook CEO ​Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

That's how Free Basics fell into the sights of regulators. India's decision will have a "seismic impact," Levy predicts, on the rest of South Asia and on Africa, where nations are establishing their own Internet economies and eventually will have to deal with Net neutrality.

A 'mainstream' conversation

The global debate is gathering momentum. Between 2010 and 2014 only three countries -- Chile, Israel and the Netherlands -- put laws in place to protect Net neutrality, according to the World Wide Web Foundation's Web Index report. Over the last year alone, we've seen the EU, the US and India join the club.

In sub-Saharan Africa, regulators and the tech industry have been closely following the proceedings, said Nanjira Sambuli, research manager at iHub in Nairobi, Kenya. "I think it's just about to become a more 'mainstream' conversation."

The US and much of Europe came online as the Web giants of the world were still evolving and could therefore afford to take their time in pondering Net neutrality issues. But with global tech companies poised to implement their own plans for the Internet in countries coming online, those nations don't have the same luxury of waiting until broadband is established to make key decisions.

"The Indian decision makes it clear that broadband buildout and open Internet policy are closely related," said Levy. "So populous countries like Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria, Philippines, and others are no doubt taking a close look at Free Basics and the need to maintain strong Net neutrality protections."

A different view

Not everyone views Net neutrality as the catalyst for online equality. Opponents believe it'll actually have the opposite effect.

Josh Steimle, author and founder of marketing agency MWI, is concerned that Net neutrality legislation will lead to the "politicization of the Internet, the selective enforcement, the lawsuits, and the uncertainty." Large companies are well placed to deal with the rules, meaning small companies "automatically lose."

MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte doesn't believe all elements of Net neutrality are themselves equal. While he takes issue with Free Basics, he believes some traffic should be prioritized. "The few bits per hour from your Internet-connected pacemaker are more important than the megabits per second needed for a movie," he said.

It's not so simple finding the balance points among entertainment, health care, education and all the other demands we put on the wiring that ties us all together.

Perhaps an Internet like the one imagined by Negroponte is the answer. "Internet access should be free, like streetlights and sidewalks," he said. "Yes, it costs money, but not yours directly. It is part of civics -- a mission, not a market."