Considerations and debates on net neutrality in Zimbabwe

MISA-Zimbabwe and the Postal Regulatory Authority in Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) on 16 May 2016 collaboratively hosted a breakfast meeting with Internet Services Providers (ISPs) in the country to map key issues likely to influence policy on net-neutrality in the country.

Speaking at the breakfast meeting, POTRAZ Head of ICT’s Tichafa Mujuru said the conversation was important for the regulatory board in its bid to create space for policy dialogue for the service providers, consumers and political players.

The meeting was attended by fixed and mobile internet service providers, consumer rights groups, prominent netizens and digital activists. It focused on four main areas. These comprised the internet as a public good vs. the existing telecommunications business model in Zimbabwe; Equality of internet traffic and management techniques; Costs trends and ideals for a net neutrality policy for the country.

What is network neutrality

Net neutrality refers to the regulatory stance against any form of discrimination by telecom networks against users of the Internet. At its core, net neutrality allows users to be on an equal footing.

The internet’s openness and the freedom to access different types of content without discrimination are key to its dynamism. Network neutrality is the basic principle that internet providers cannot speed up or slow down web content based on its source, ownership or destination.

If the principle of net neutrality is not upheld:

  • A user could be charged more to access a particular website
  • It could be harder for activists to share their content as they would likely not be able to afford to enter “fast lanes” generated by telcos.
  • Blogs or public information/education websites, which do not make a profit, would be at a disadvantage, as access to the users could be restricted.

MISA-Zimbabwe’s Programme officer responsible for Broadcasting and ICT’s, Koliwe Majama noted that policy in net neutrality should be grounded on two main instruments which include the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms and Zimbabwe’s internet regulation principles as agreed by participants to the MISA-Zimbabwe facilitated by the National Internet Governance Conference held on 21 August 2015. One of the principles emphasises the need for access to the internet to be affordable and predicated on net-neutrality.

Trends of net neutrality in Zimbabwe and the region

Net neutrality is a key emerging internet governance issue on the continent. Whose broader context lies in the introduction of zero-rated or cheaply bundled access to Facebook by mobile operators. The trend can be traced back to mid-2014 with when Facebook launched the service in Zambia. To date 19 other African which include Tanzania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda , Malawi and most recently Nigeria that launched its service in parnership with Airtel month.

In each of the countries, the Free Basics service is facilitated through a partnerships with a mobile network operators that is willing to adopt the service. Facebook is reportedly in the pipeline of establishing the service in Zimbabwe in partnership with Telecel Zimbabwe.

This would not be the first time that the country experiences zero-rated services by the MNO’s. In 2014, Telecel introduced a Facebook Zero service and offered free access to the social media platform while Econet also offered a free bouquet of education sites in a zero-rated service.

From an operator’s standpoint, free services introduce a host of mobile broadband users, who are ordinarily excluded from the benefits of the internet by its high cost, to the power of online connectivity.

Key issues for consideration in policy formulation

Openness in traffic management practices

ISPs should openly publicise information regarding traffic management practices in the same manner in which they advertised their promotions and pacakges. Netizens felt that there was no wide publicity of such information such that consumers have very limited awareness.

No censorship

ISPs should not block websites that do not suit their political or corporate agenda as this forms a huge part of a broader debate on human rights and the Internet.

Promotion of local content

Content producers noted that because a few private players own and control the largest percentage of the mobile and internet network in the country, there is limited consumer choice on use of the internet as decisions are made based on what they can afford. ISPs noted that costs were influenced by the fact that most traffic is international. A call was made for an increase in the promotion of local content production and partnership between ISPs and content producers.

Bundling of data & promotions

Zimbabweans that access the internet over mobile phone noted that they feel at the mercy of mobile network operators who effectively dictate what they can get for their money. Contestations were raised on the period and pricing of data-bundles for social media for mobile subscribers in the country and a call made for clarity and a clearer policy on this.

 Look out for a full report & podcast on the net-neutrality conversation

About MISA Zimbabwe

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe was founded in 1996. Its work focuses on promoting, and advocating for, the unhindered enjoyment of freedom of expression, access to information and a free, independent, diverse and pluralistic media.