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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) In other words, ISPs should treat all data that travels over their networks fairly, without improper discrimination in favour of a particular application, website or service.(2) Discrimination in this regard may relate to affecting information in a way that halts, slows or otherwise tampers with the transfer of any data, except for a legitimate network management purpose, such as easing congestion or blocking spam.(3)

    The 2017 Report of the UNSR on freedom of expression describes two key ways in which net neutrality may be affected:(4)

    • 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; other services or applications, meanwhile, are subject to metered cost.

    In various countries around Africa, there has been significant debate about access to zero‑rated content, as particularly social networking sites 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 serve as a gateway to users to understand the opportunities that the internet can offer.  On the other hand is that zero‑rating can lead to unfair competition, and can distort users’ perceptions by only allowing access to particular sites.(5)

    Footnotes

    1. 2017 Report of the UNSR on freedom of expression above at n 18 at para 23. Back
    2. Electronic Frontier Foundation, ‘Net neutrality’ (accessible at: https://www.eff.org/issues/net-neutrality). Back
    3. n Civil Liberties Union, ‘What is net neutrality?’ (accessible at: https://www.aclu.org/issues/free-speech/internet-speech/what-net-neutrality). Back
    4. 2017 Report of the UNSR on freedom of expression at paras 24-28. 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: https://www.researchictafrica.net/publications/Other_publications/2016_RIA_Zero-Rating_Policy_Paper_-_Much_ado_about_nothing.pdf). Back