Net neutrality and zero rating were this year's 'hot topics' at IGF 2015. With the issues being debated in a number of sessions, one of the main questions was whether the provision of zero rating services in developing countries serves to empower such countries, or whether the services represent a ‘walled garden’ approach which conflicts with policies of access and social development. Is limited access better than no access at all? Or is it the case of ‘If you want to give us access, don’t give us these tricks, give us real access', as one speaker aptly put it? Scroll down for IGF 2015 updates on the topic, and view more in-depth IGF 2015 updates.
The need for people to gain access to ICT resources and narrow the digital divide is crucial, and is especially relevant now in the light of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is also important to understand how access to the Internet affects the level of economic and social development in a country.
The Internet’s success lies in its design, which is based on the principle of net neutrality. From the outset, the flow of all the content on the Internet was treated without discrimination. New entrepreneurs did not need permission or market power to innovate on the Internet. With the development of new digital services, especially the ones consuming high bandwidth such as high-quality video streaming, some Internet operators (telecom companies and ISPs) started prioritising certain traffic – such as their own services or the services of their business partners – based on business needs and plans, justifying such an approach with a need to raise funds to further invest in the network. Net neutrality proponents strongly fight back such plans arguing this could limit open access to information and online freedoms, and stifle online innovation.
Internet access is growing rapidly, yet large groups of people remain unconnected to the Internet. As of 2015, about 43% of people had access to the Internet (in developing countries only 34%). Access to ICTs is part of the Sustainable Development Agenda, which commits to ‘significantly increase access to ICTs and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020’ (Goal 9.c).