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A call to arms

This year’s imec Technology Forum in Belgium provided a chance to explore new technologies behind some interesting, game-changing innovations as well as to hear from some of the world’s leading technology leaders.

One of the presenters, Andreas Ekström, a futurist and commentator on the digital revolution caught the attention of the audience, however, with an impassioned defence of, and call for, greater net neutrality.

Net neutrality describes the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all of the data they provide to customers equally and should not use their infrastructure to block out competitors.

Ekström described people between the ages of 20-70 as the first digital professional generation and suggested that their decisions would be critical to ensuring net neutrality was enforced and protected.

So, is net neutrality an issue we take seriously enough?

In Europe, the EU has laid down a framework for net neutrality but has been criticised for leaving too many loopholes that can be exploited, in fact a number of countries have stronger national laws or are in the process of passing them.

India was identified by Ekström as a leader when it came to net neutrality, passing new laws enshrining the principle in 2017.

The US, by contrast is close to losing it as a result of the Federal Communications Commission's decision to rollback rules brought in under President Obama to ensure that all traffic on the internet was treated equally.

Net neutrality is critical if we are to enable small business to compete with established players. If access is controlled by incumbents, then it will be all but impossible for new companies to compete.

In Africa, Facebook has developed an app that allows access to a few, selected websites for free. Free Basic allows users to access 10 top sites but beyond that, they have to pay. Very profitable – for Facebook.

Net neutrality is about making sure that unknown services can compete equally with popular ones. No one will abandon their ISP if it throttles access to a start-up retailer, but shouldn’t that company have the ability to compete with established businesses?

Not only is net neutrality crucial to both new businesses and consumers alike, but there is a political angle too – should candidates or political parties be able to pay for access to the web, or ensure that favourable broadcast channels get their content prioritised over less supportive channels?

Do we want the richest to be able to buy broadband access, their cash in return for prioritising traffic from certain sites?

In an angry presentation Ekström said that when he signed up to the web in the early 1990s it promised an ‘ocean’ of knowledge; today he described it as more like a series of ‘puddles’.

Regulators have a crucial role to play here, and they need to ensure that net neutrality rules are enforced properly so that innovation and competition are encouraged and supported.

Neil Tyler

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