Net neutrality has become an incredibly controversial subject. There’s a reason why the moment in history when Internet entered our lives is known as The Information Age. The ability to have any information at our fingertips instantly was nothing short of magic.
There were no limits to what we could find. We controlled the information to which we exposed ourselves, and it was an equal playing field, where the biggest companies were just as likely to come up on our searches as the local mom and pop shop around the corner. In other words, the net was neutral. Today this neutrality is in danger. With money being at the base of decision making, we are increasingly threatened with limitations on what information we are given.
Today there are 4 billion people without access to Internet. The Information Age skipped them. Global Internet reach is not neutral, and this should be our first concern.
While the concern over net neutrality is real, bridging the digital divide and bringing everyone in the world online has already caused chasms in access to information. In developing countries, accessing Internet services isn’t only what people want, it’s often what they need. Mobile Internet access provides crucial information that can better lives, and, in many cases, even save them.
Text services have already remarkably improved lives. Mobile banking, for example, was cited in the Gates 2015 letter as one of the main breakthroughs expected to improve the lives of the poor. Organizations such as Peek vision have created smartphone capabilities that combat blindness. Internet access will take these leaps even further.
In these cases, we are not talking about Internet as we know it on this side of the digital divide. For those of us who have Internet on a daily basis, our usage of mobile internet is one third information and two third socializing. To shop, read news, chat with friends, check our email, and play games, we want to be able to choose our own services. We want “net neutrality” and we oppose the idea of imposed limitations. On the other side of the digital divide, as we have already seen with the examples of the Masaï cattle breeders in Africa or the paddy fields farmers in Asia, the needs are more primary. The fact is, Internet services can help with food, security and shelter. Notably, social inclusion is also an essential human need, and the more of us there are online, the more those that aren’t face potential social exclusion.
That said, the need for access to crucial basic information does not exclude also having expectations and equal rights. People being brought online have the same expectations for freedom of choice as those of us who have lived with the Internet since it’s invention, and they have a right to unrestricted information.
But bridging the divide isn’t easy to do. The app developed by Internet.org has recently been criticized for its approach to give access only to select services. Mark Zuckerberg in a recent interview commented on the net neutrality issue being faced by internet.org in India as follows: “if someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.” This, surely we can all agree on. However, in the longterm, we need to bear in mind that offering a few free apps handpicked by Facebook or any other company certainly cannot be considered “a free and open Internet”.
The net neutrality debate is a global social debate, not something limited to internet.org. It is at the forefront of our minds. Let’s not forget that net neutrality is the target to reach, and that bringing people online will be one of the milestones that will lead us to that final goal.