Ideas & Debate

Internet proposals threaten future of Silicon Savannah


The positive story of the proliferation of broadband access across Kenya is in large part due to its approach to allowing new technologies to enter the market and grow. /Reuters

The Kenyan government, working with the private sector, has enabled consumers and businesses to thrive due to policies promoting investment in, and development of, Internet infrastructure.

As a direct result of these forward-minded policies, the rate of Internet adoption in Kenya has increased almost 12 per cent in the past year, attracting 4.6 million new Internet users in Kenya according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) during this period of time. This is truly remarkable and a tribute to public-private co-operation.

The positive story of the proliferation of broadband access across Kenya is in large part due to its approach to allowing new technologies to enter the market and grow.

In 2010, Kenya’s exports of technology-related services reached $360 million, compared to $16 million in 2002.

The hundreds of start-ups that have appeared in Nairobi have earned the city the nickname “Silicon Savannah.”

Innovation and entrepreneurship flourish in the context of an open and dynamic Internet; the seamless Internet that exists today is a key ingredient in Kenya’s success story.

Standing in the way of Kenya’s continued Internet advancement, however, are certain proposals set for consideration at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which will occur in Dubai in December, and brings together 193 member countries and hundreds of other stakeholders to update the International Telecommunication Regulations, an international treaty that did not apply to the Internet so far.

Some countries and organisations appear to want to stuff the dynamic and flexible Internet into the straightjacket of an international treaty-level document administered by a lumbering international bureaucracy.

These proposals, if adopted, could potentially cap the ascent of Kenyan consumers and businesses.

They could endanger many other developing economies, especially those in Africa.

Furthermore, these proposals could effectively prevent Internet users in Africa from accessing some of the most valuable and interesting Internet content, such as Facebook and YouTube.

The centralised approach to Internet governance advocated by some is antithetical to the fundamental tenants that underlie the Internet, namely freedom to create and readily access the vast amounts of data and information for the benefit of all web users.

A multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance has served the people of Africa well since the Internet’s nascent stages.

This approach — whereby innovators, entrepreneurs, technologists, businesses and civil society have jointly overseen the light-touch regulation of the Internet — has allowed the Internet to become a powerful force for generating economic growth and social progress for the benefit of billions of people.

Some African government representatives and European incumbent telecom operators are proposing measures that could place unnecessary limitations on Internet users in developing countries like Kenya, inhibiting Internet adoption especially by the poor.

The Association of European Telecom Network Operators has proposed a “sending party network pays” rule for content requested by Internet users, which would be disproportionately harmful to African and other developing country citizens.

Sadly, similar proposals are included in the so-called consensus documents being prepared on behalf of the African governments.

While Kenyans currently pay to connect to the Internet, they are not required to pay additional sums for freely available content.

The “sending party network pays” principle would require Kenyans to pay for content that would most likely be moved behind paywalls.

In the worst, but not altogether unlikely, scenario, content that is freely available in some parts of the world may not be offered in developing countries.

For example, the present economics of the Internet allow students in Africa to access innovative short educational videos on thousands of subjects through Khan Academy, a nonprofit service established by a Bangladeshi-American social entrepreneur living in the United States.

Remind ITU

Today, the only cost is connectivity. If the European proposal is enacted, the networks supplying Khan Academy content at the request of users would have to enter into agreements to make substantial payments to thousands of networks all over the world.

The transaction costs would be onerous, since today there are multiple networks within each country, unlike in the bad old bilateral monopoly days when the Sending Party Network Pays was how payments for international voice traffic were handled.

The payments and the transaction costs are not likely to be borne by the networks hosting content and would instead be passed on to content providers, such as Khan Academy.

It is incumbent upon the Kenyan government to remind fellow African countries and demonstrate to ITU member countries how to effectively promote the Internet.

To date, Kenya’s digital economy and Internet access and adoption rates are on a steep upward trajectory.

The current dynamic and flexible approach to Internet governance does not need an unwanted layer of additional bureaucracy.

Promoting a multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance, incentivising private investment and turning away principles like “sending party network pays” will do more to promote the spread of the Internet than a command and control setup currently being contemplated by the ITU.

Dr Samarajiva is founding chairman and CEO of LIRNEasia, former director-general of telecommunications of Sri Lanka and a board member of Research ICT Africa.