7 December 2012

Kenya: Nation At Crossroads On Proposed Internet Rules

It has been a tough week in the global telecommunications sector as the battle lines over control of the internet were drawn.

In the World Conference on International Telecommunications going on in Dubai, the debate over whether to change the current internet model has been going on, and will continue until next week.

This concerns issues of who should govern the internet, to what extent it should be governed, privacy online, who should pay for content and who to be paid for internet usage among other contentious issues.

This has been seen as a fight between the West and East. On one hand is the US and Canada governments seeking to retain the regulations set as far back as 1988, rules that have seen them retain much control of the net.

On the other is the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations body, that is trying to introduce new rules and has gained the backing of countries such as Russia and China.

The Eastern countries are proposing greater control by individual governments in regulating the internet and transfer of data away from the hands of US and its private entities.

The opposers say this violates freedom of speech and access to information as governments can interfere with the internet whenever they want to.

The internet was originally designed to operate in a de-centralised model, which meant if any part of the network is down, the traffic could be re-routed via an alternative pathway.

With major hardlines drawn among the big economies, African states which have the fastest growing internet usage have been left in a slack.

There is also a commercial aspect on the debate relating to whether content providers such as search engines and social media sites should pay telecoms operators for using their networks.

This could see the content providers pass on the costs to consumers of the content, thus inhibiting free access to popular sites such as Google, Youtube and Facebook.

The US and most other Western countries had hoped to regulate telecom providers, but leave major companies, like Google, alone. Google has been on a major campaign to gather signatures to oppose this. But European and eastern countries want the big US companies to pay for the much pressure they exert on their infrastructure.

The internet stakeholders in Kenya, who include the government, regulator, Internet Service Providers, Telcos still do not have an agreed position on this.

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication Bitange Nndemo said before the Dubai conference opened, "These are contentious issues that we must get consensus on. We cannot come up with a position that has not been agreed on by stakeholders."

Nzioka Waita, Safaricom's director of corporate affairs, says, "I don't imagine that the debate of charging for internet content is going to be resolved anytime soon, particularly given the stand-off between telecommunications service providers and over the top players who are responsible for generating and driving the bulk of internet traffic."

He adds, "The issue of cost recovery for the owners of the infrastructure who provide the connectivity to the internet for users is one that will have to be addressed but we can't say at this point what the best solution is."

ICT expert Alex Gakuru argues if the big content providers are charged, many African users may be shut down from the online content they rely on so much.

On a positive note, Gakuru says this might prompt Africa to create more of its own content to keep revenues to the local ISPs and content providers.

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