*The author is a cultural studies graduate, technology enthusiast and content strategist by profession.
Aslam, who is still learning how to repair mobiles and plans to settle in Dubai afterwards, says he is thankful for the free services offered by mainstream cellular service providers in Pakistan. Thanks to the Free WhatsApp offer by his carrier, he can make calls abroad and back home. He can talk to his brother, who is already settled in the U.A.E, and his mother who resides in his hometown, Sargodha, without having to pay for any extra data. All good, right?
Millions of Pakistanis like Aslam enjoy these free services offered by their cellular service providers, however, almost none of them are aware of the fact that this is in direct violation of the concept of Net Neutrality which is globally recognized as the backbone of free web space. These free services come under the umbrella of zero-rating plans. There are currently no Net Neutrality laws in Pakistan, however, to understand why legislation in this aspect is needed, we’ll have to dig a little deeper to understand the concept of Net Neutrality in detail.
People in Pakistan might not be familiar with the phrase ‘zero- rating plans’ but almost all of us have, at one time or another, benefitted from these. All major cellular service providers in Pakistan offer zero-rating plans to their consumers. They have their own offers for people who want access to Facebook, WhatsApp, and even Twitter for free.
Zero Rating Offers can be simply defined as ‘plans that exempt particular data from counting against a user’s data cap, or from accruing excess charges’. So, what really is wrong if a carrier is offering free services to their consumers?
In this age of commercialism, nothing is free, which is why it is worth researching before reaching conclusions. The introduction of zero rating plans brings with it a two-tiered version of the Internet, which is extremely harmful. Zero Rating plans run on a ‘pay for play’ model. This means that businesses that require carriers to offer their services for free to consumers need to pay first. This may seem only fair at first. However, smaller companies and startups that aren’t earning enough to pay carriers for this prioritized form of data distribution are automatically left out of the competition. The chances of bigger corporations creating their monopoly keep increasing, whereas, smaller companies almost never get the chance to compete with them at a level playing field.
Moreover, these plans facilitate certain carriers who have an unfair advantage over their competitors. Take Pakistan’s example for instance, where Telenor has set a daily limit, a 100 Mbs per day, for its ‘Free Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp’ offer. On the other hand, Zong offers unlimited WhatsApp daily and Jazz offers unlimited free Facebook browsing. This puts Telenor at a disadvantage. When established networks such as Telenor find it hard to compete against others, how can a Pakistani dream of setting up his/her own startup in this industry?
Furthermore, zero rating plans also indirectly restrict users from experiencing or exploring any other platforms. Other VoIP services such as Viber and Skype would obviously not have a chance against WhatsApp if carriers keep offering it for free, hence killing competition and innovation.
Facebook’s bid at wanting to connect the unconnected in developed countries through internet.org is another example of zero rating plans. When internet.org was introduced – with an aim to provide free mobile internet access to those who couldn’t afford to pay for data plans – only Facebook had control over which sites were accessible on their free web platform. That soon changed, but Facebook still has control over what people can access on internet.org, which is a contradiction to the concept of the internet being a free and open source. Many developing countries still have no Net Neutrality laws and global corporations are taking advantages of this fact. When Facebook gets to offer free services in an area where other platforms don’t, it automatically holds an advantage over them.
What’s more interesting is that many of these corporations, such as Facebook, favor Net Neutrality in the United States, whereas, they openly violate the same in other countries. With Net Neutrality laws in action, local startups would get chances of competing with global giants at a level playing field.
The examples of zero-rating plans aren’t limited to cellular services only. PTCL, the sole provider of bandwidth to almost all carriers and business in Pakistan, has unlimited control of how we experience the web space in Pakistan. PTCL’s contract with Dailymotion back when YouTube was banned in Pakistan is a perfect example of how paid prioritization works in the absence of net neutrality. Since PTCL supplies bandwidth to all services in Pakistan, their contract with Dailymotion may have easily facilitated a better viewing experience on Dailymotion rather than other similar sites such as Vimeo.
India, where more than half of the population has no access to the internet, did not let Facebook lure them in to accepting their free version of the internet, internet.org. Facebook tried to launch its Free Basics service in India as well. This initiated a debate over net neutrality in India and eventually took the form of a nationwide campaign, ’Save The Internet’. Save The Internet, the domestic campaign for net neutrality, garnered support from all over India and resulted inthe Telecom Authority of India’s (TRAI) recommendation of rules for Net Neutrality in 2017, which were then put into full effect in July 2018. India introduced, as quoted by BBC, the ‘most progressive policy on equal internet access’ when the US was debating on repealing the laws for the same.
The concern of neutral internet space initiated in India when Reliance, one of the largest telecom operators in India, started offering the Facebook Free Basics service to its consumers. After this, the public started demanding from the government to introduce laws prohibiting Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to ban content they disliked, throttle speeds, and zero-rating plans. According to the net neutrality rules in India, ISPs have to comply with the above stated prohibitions, as any violations would result in license cancellation.
The term Net Neutrality was coined by Law Professor Tim Wu and, for someone who is completely unaware of the term, it simply means that all content on the internet, regardless of its nature or the content provider’s stature, runs on the same speed. This means that with Net Neutrality in practice, a local video streaming startup can compete with the likes of YouTube. Those who advocate the concept of Net Neutrality say that the ISPs shouldn’t concern themselves with the type of data transferred over the internet and should just focus on the betterment of their services. Imagine if you had to pay for buffering to go away. This is what smaller companies and startups have to do in order to provide a seamless service to their consumers. You’d be surprised to know the level of control ISPs have in the absence of Net Neutrality. Bigger corporations pay carriers and ISPs to obtain a larger share of the web space. Paid prioritization and zero-rating plans restrict your internet experience to a few online platforms, hence controlling what you see. So, what does the absence of Net Neutrality mean for you?
Whenever a user searches for news and opts for a website to read the news on, the ISPs have to connect them to that website. If the website you have opted for hasn’t paid the ISP to include it in the ‘fast lane’ you will likely experience a slower browsing experience. This means your ISP, coupled with a few content providers, is shaping your online viewing preferences.
Comcast consumers experienced the same when they saw their Netflix browsing speeds declining and then increasing again when Netflix and Comcast reached a new agreement. Since some content providers have to pay more for better speed, the consumers end up sharing the burden of the increase in expenses. A certain content provider’s monopoly in a certain industry can kill any desire for them to improve their services. Moreover, if a certain video-streaming or VoIP service strikes a deal with an ISP, your ISP could intentionally restrict you from accessing other services. With Net Neutrality laws in place, ISPs cannot place these blocks resulting in an original web experience.
In a market with no Net Neutrality rules in place, any new startup will find it hard to survive. For instance, someone launches a new e-commerce website, but if ISPs are offering consumers to browse Daraz.pk for free then the newly built e-commerce will already be at a disadvantage, even before its arrival in the market. Net Neutrality is an issue that is not only relevant in business terms but in much larger issues concerning human rights and freedom of expression. Neutrality laws prevent ISPs from blocking content they don’t like and help consumers browse an internet where they can choose to access the information they want to. Contrarily, without Net Neutrality, ISPs discriminate amongst companies on the basis of whether they have paid them or not, hence placing them in the fast or slow lane. Companies then pay the ISPs to join the fast lane, resulting in an increase in prices and a brutal blow to startups.
Net Neutrality is a concept that hasn’t been adopted by every country around the globe. The laws differ for every country and even states in some cases, however, what’s similar is that Net Neutrality laws affect the mobile internet experience more than the desktop browsing experience. With cellular internet traffic increasing at a rapid rate in almost all developing countries, Internet Service Providers have a better chance to make more money without internet regulation laws in place. ISPs, however, claim that the presence of regulation laws makes it harder for them to make profits and hence hampers infrastructure development.
What we know, with the help of data and research, is that the presence or absence of Net Neutrality Laws has a direct impact on four stakeholders:
- Consumers: Consumers can experience an original version of the internet or a tweaked one based on whether their ISP adheres to or violets Net Neutrality.
- ISPs: Internet Service Providers claim that they have a better chance of improving their infrastructure without Net Neutrality hence allowing them to provide a better user experience whereas they don’t get to make much profit with internet regulations in place.
- Over The Top Service Providers: Over The Top Service providers include web and apps from any industry including e-commerce such as Daraz, Voice over Internet Protocol services such as WhatsApp and streaming services such as YouTube or Soundcloud. Any startup has the potential to rise to the level of these giants with Net Neutrality rules in place. However, without the necessary regulation, larger corporations can just keep on paying the ISPs for a swift experience to their consumers only.
- Regulators: Governments have the right to regulate the internet in their countries and can decide against or for Net Neutrality rules.
If we consider Pakistan specifically, PTCL is the sole provider of bandwidth to all major ISPs. PTCL also remains the only provider of landline service in Pakistan, the demand for which is decreasing by the day as people move towards cellular communication and VoIP services. If PTCL decides to restrict users from using Skype or WhatsApp, to call their friends abroad, to bolster the use of their landline services, there would be no stopping them. Also, there are no startups or smaller corporations in sight that could one day claim half or even quarter the market share of PTCL – all because of the absence of Net Neutrality.
Charging users extra for a service that is actually free isn’t something Pakistani consumers haven’t experienced before. A few years back, Ufone announced that they would be charging a certain amount for making calls over WhatsApp while using their 3G services. This was a tactic to get consumers to use their cellular services instead of free WhatsApp to WhatsApp calls. In a more recent event, PTCL announced its collaboration with iflix, a subscription video-on-demand service, which would possibly have affected other streaming services.
No laws are in place for Net Neutrality in Pakistan and while ISPs argue that some services require higher bandwidths to function, the debate of whether to have a neutral internet space comes down to whether we want a fair marketplace or not. The monopoly of a few services, apps and websites can be damaging in the long run and promote an environment where larger companies don’t feel challenged. With Net Neutrality laws in place, entrepreneurs can set up their businesses with the confidence that they have a chance of competing with other content providers. However, the implementation of Net Neutrality is only possible through careful research of data, elimination all loopholes and eradication of corruption, which remains a problem in developing countries like Pakistan.
The issue of whether to keep Net Neutrality or not took center stage in 2018 when, Trump appointed, Chairman of Federal Communications Commission unveiled plans to repeal the net neutrality policy back in November 2017. The debate over Net Neutrality in America is not a new one but was apparently settled once and for all by the Obama administration with the introduction of stringent Net Neutrality laws in June 2015. Then the FCC voted 3 to 2 in favor of reversing the policies introduced by the Obama government. The new rules took effect on June 11, 2018. It has to be stated here that the assumption that the repeal of these policies would have any affect on Pakistan is false. Domestic experts in developing nations claim that rewinding net neutrality laws to a former state could change how people access the internet worldwide, however, that is not the case, at least for Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s ISPs are not dependent on the U.S for bandwidth allocation, the only affect from the presence or absence of the policies in the U.S would have been an increase in the prices of American subscription services such as Netflix.
Although not much attention is paid to digital rights in Pakistan, the increase of cellular connections and internet reach in the country should eventually encourage debates regarding Net Neutrality. The only regulations governing internet traffic in Pakistan were introduced back in 2014 which allow the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to keep monitoring Internet Service Providers for continuous availability and maintenance of network speeds. There is, however, no restriction of how an ISP could control what a user sees or does not see on the internet. With more than 67 million 3G/4G users in the country, it is of profound importance that a medium as strong as the internet is properly regulated.
Independent research firms such as the Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan (iPOP) have tried to get the government to focus on issues such as Net Neutrality and Cybersecurity. With a vision of fostering the development of internet in Pakistan, iPOP conducts regular research on Information and Communications Technology and regulations in Pakistan. iPOP is now a part of a global initiative, Global Net Neutrality Coalition, demanding ‘the internet be maintained as an open platform, on which network providers treat all content, applications, and services equally, without discrimination’. iPOP is one of the 35 groups from 19 countries who are a part of this coalition.
Internet Policy Observatory Pakistan has done considerable work in researching why internet regulation is important, however, the need of the day is to highlight the importance of net neutrality to users and decision makers in Pakistan. Average Pakistani’s are so preoccupied in surviving their day-to-day ordeals that they don’t care much about their online privacy, cybersecurity or net neutrality.
The argument that ISPs need to deploy a pay as you go model for making profits to invest in infrastructures makes sense at first but is ethically incorrect. The absence of net neutrality laws enables ISPs to discriminate between content providers, block services at their will and place checkpoints on an otherwise open web space. Today, where countries like Finland are already working towards listing internet access as a fundamental human right, we are still on a very initial stage of recognizing our digital rights while dreaming of progressing to become a modern state at the same time.
The implementation of any internet regulations laws wouldn’t be an easy task in Pakistan, mostly because the major stakeholder of providing bandwidths to all ISPs of Pakistan, PTCL wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Whatever the case, despite blockage of services from ISPs and even the government, the people still want their smartphones to run on the fastest internet. The number of 3G/4g subscribers would only increase in the near future which means demand for a faster 4G speed would only increase in the coming years. Cellular connections in Pakistan are on a rapid rise, which means next year more people with lower income would have access to cellular networks, hence increasing the demand for zero- rating services from their carriers. This would result in an increase of the control that the ISPs already have and would keep pushing startups down and out of business.
We have never seen the issue of Net Neutrality rise on a national level in Pakistan and, to be honest, we are far from that, unless a campaign similar and as well managed as India’s ‘Save The Internet’ is run to educate the public. When the recent net neutrality rules were introduced in India more than half of their population did not have access to the internet – still, the experts there felt that for the startup and entrepreneurship culture to flourish they needed proper internet regulations. The co-founder of ‘Save The Internet’ campaign reminisces that when they started the campaign they had no hope there’d be Net Neutrality at all, but determination and a comprehensive campaign run for years proved otherwise. Pakistan is ahead in terms of the percentage of people who have access to the internet, yet the closest Net Neutrality came to being discussed on the national level was at a workshop in 2015. The event was organized by the Higher Education Commission and invited experts and academics from all over the country to come up with a wholesome strategy for internet governance. The committee came up with a ‘Pakistan Bucket List Internet Governance Issues’ where Net Neutrality came in at No. 17, only preceded by Gender Balance, Online Education, and Internet Infrastructure. Other issues included in the list of 20 were Cyber Security, Internet Taxation, Privacy, and E-Governance.
As stated earlier, existing laws in Pakistan do not prohibit ISPs opting for a two-tiered network. As it stands, corporate content is being prioritized and this is not just a technical issue but a very human one as well. With a good number of startups now coming through and the entrepreneurship culture on the rise, the new government should focus on addressing the Net Neutrality issue if it wants to truly facilitate new businesses. Pakistan is at a very early stage of even realizing the importance of digital rights; still, the issue of Net Neutrality cannot be ignored. Only a non-discriminate internet space will fuel further innovation.
Currently, large e-commerce setups have the opportunity to get their content prioritized which translates to a larger number of advertisers that are inclined to showcase ads on their website. The result? More profits for the already wealthy and even lesser for those struggling to compete. The desire of legislation for net neutrality rules has to come from the public because larger corporations and, in Pakistan’s case, even the government does not care. Our rising startup culture needs an open internet space, not a restricted one. The internet is now the most powerful tool of communication on the planet, and it is unfair to leave it unregulated. ISPs are businesses, their main goal is to make profits, which is why they will always advocate for an environment that enables maximum profit generation.
Either the government or independent research agencies such as the iPOP need to gather activists, media and educationist to help educate our public and make this topic a part of the public disclosure. Whether anyone accepts or declines the policies is a debate that can come later – initiating a campaign for proper internet regulation should come first. By letting the ISPs control the internet traffic we are not only letting them throw startups out of business but also – because of their control of what people see over the internet – the building of international and national narratives. Amid immense pressure, the government is focusing on the development sector and we can only hope that once this gets settled the government’s focus starts shifting towards equally important issues such as cybersecurity, online privacy, and net neutrality, before its too late.