Dear MTN and Vodacom, don’t dictate to us how to use the internet

On Tuesday, Parliament’s portfolio committee on telecommunications and postal services held hearings into whether WhatsApp, Skype and other so-called over-the-top (OTT) internet messaging services should be regulated, controlled and possibly charged extra for.

The meeting was requested by both MTN and Vodacom, who argue that services like WhatsApp make use of their network’s infrastructure but do not contribute to it, and should therefore be regulated. Cell C, however, is against such a move.

A statement issued by the committee says the issue is whether OTTs should “generate revenue” for the cellular networks.

But these services already generate revenue for the network. I pay for data. It’s mine, and they have financially benefited from me buying it.

At the meeting, Professor Alison Gillwald, the executive director of Research ICT Africa, said as much: “The networks are getting their cut.”

So this reasoning falls flat.

The cellular providers have also argued that WhatsApp is a problem because it doesn’t pay tax in South Africa, but they have failed to explain why WhatsApp is being singled out. They could have mentioned Tinder, Waze or Instagram. They could have mentioned Angry Birds, but instead they are focusing their attention on a competitor and I find this questionable at best.

But there is a second and more threatening danger with over-regulation of the internet: it is a serious attack against net neutrality.

In brief, net neutrality is the idea that telecoms companies should not be allowed to tell their customers how to use the internet.

The easiest way to explain why net neutrality is important is to picture a system in which service providers could charge you extra for some web services. Imagine if your internet service provider announced that you would have to pay it 40c every time you sent an email, just as with an SMS (after all, emails consume far more data). I can’t help but feel that many probably would if they could.

Net neutrality prevents this from taking place. It is a vital part of a functional internet because it protects the consumer and allows good ideas to succeed in an unbiased market.

Steve Ballmer, the former chief executive of Microsoft, claimed that Apple’s iPhone would never get “any significant market share”. Steve Jobs claimed that the Kindle would never be successful because “people don’t read any more”. And Steve Chen, one of the founders of YouTube, believed that the site would never be particularly popular because “there’s just not that many videos I want to watch”.

The fact that these men are all called Steve is a coincidence. The fact that even experts in their fields fail to predict technological development is no coincidence. Technology simply is unpredictable. The future of the internet should not be left to the “experts”; it should be left to consumers to use whatever suits them best, and overregulating or overcharging the internet will stifle innovation.

But there are even worse possibilities. Without net neutrality, telecommunications companies could create their own rivals to popular services and force their customers to use them. Imagine if Google decided that you could either pay R200 a month to use Facebook or you could use Google+ for free. I feel that most people would take one look at Google+ and want to just pay the money. But many could not afford to do so.

Of course, one can argue that this is unlikely to happen, that I am simply fearmongering. Except that this profiteering scenario is exactly what MTN and Vodacom are trying to create. By restricting OTT services, they are trying to discourage people from using them and to instead go back to traditional text messaging and cellphone calls.

WhatsApp is just a way of texting more cheaply; Skype is just a way of making a phone call more cheaply – and these services’ low costs are a key issue.

Another accusation is that this is about putting the network under strain but, if this were really the case, then the cellular providers would not only focus on WhatsApp, they would also target the YouTube app, a point that was made at the meeting by Dominic Cull of the Internet Service Providers’ Association. OTTs are not “uniquely taxing” on the network; data is just data.

Another claim is that OTTs are too expensive, but if costs were the problem, the companies could simply increase the price of data to cover the expense. All companies pass costs on to their customers when prices rise. But Vodacom and MTN know that if they increase their prices, they will lose subscribers to Cell C. So their only way of competing is by attacking at government level and imposing penalties on the services that are offering the greatest value to the customer.

After all, if OTT services are so burdensome, why is it that other companies, both locally and abroad, are able to bear these costs without complaint?

To borrow a phrase from the internet, perhaps the real problem is that MTN and Vodacom need to “get good” at their respective jobs. It shouldn’t matter to consumers that these operators are losing money to OTT services. Competing in the cellular market is their problem, not ours.

And, if their attempt succeeds, one can only imagine what might follow. Perhaps DStv will declare that Netflix should be restricted because it is costing them money and uses a lot of bandwidth.

Vodacom and MTN are trying to silence competitors by overregulating the internet. It is bad business practice, it is anti-consumer, and it is a genuine assault on freedom of the internet and net neutrality.

Andrew Verrijdt is an educational psychologist and writer working with Mindful Revolution. He is based in Cape Town

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