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    What is Network Neutrality?

    Module 3: Access to the Internet

    Network neutrality — or “net neutrality” — refers to the principle that all internet data should be treated equally without undue interference, and promotes the widest possible access to information on the internet.(1) Discrimination in this regard may relate to halting, slowing or otherwise tampering with the transfer of any data, except for a legitimate network management purpose, such as easing congestion or blocking spam.(2)

    The 2017 Report of the UNSR on freedom of expression describes two key ways in which net neutrality may be compromised:(3)

    • Paid prioritisation schemes — where providers give preferential treatment to certain types of internet traffic over others for payment or other commercial benefit.
    • Zero-rating — which is the practice of not charging for the use of internet data associated with a particular application or service, while other services or applications are subject to metered cost.

    In various countries around Africa, there has been significant debate about access to zero‑rated content, particularly as social networking sites have begun to offer some measure of free access to users. On the one hand, zero-rating provides access to persons who might not otherwise have been able to access the internet and can provide critical free information on topics of public importance. For example, zero-rating was used extensively during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa to enable wider access to public health information about the disease and its prevention.(4) On the other hand, critics argue that zero‑rating can lead to unfair competition and distort users’ perceptions by only allowing access to particular sites, thereby limiting access to information.(5)

    The 2019 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa protects network neutrality by calling on states to require internet intermediaries to enable access to all internet traffic equally and not to interfere with the free flow of information by giving preference to particular internet traffic.(6)


    1. 2017 Report of the UNSR on freedom of expression above at n 18 at para 23.[/footnoteIn other words, it promotes the idea that ISPs should treat all data that travels over their networks fairly, without improper discrimination in favour of a particular application, website, or service.[footnote]Electronic Frontier Foundation, ‘Net neutrality’ (accessible at: Back
    2. The American Civil Liberties Union, ‘What is net neutrality?’ (accessible at: Back
    3. 2017 Report of the UNSR on freedom of expression at paras 24-28. Back
    4. ISPA, ‘Press Release : ISPA Helps Consumers Verify Zero-Rated Websites in SA,’ (2020) (accessible at: Back
    5. For a discussion on zero-rating in Africa, see Research ICT Africa, ‘Much ado about nothing? Zero-rating in the African context’, 12 September 2016 (accessible at: Back
    6. Principle 39. Back