GETTING Africans access to the Internet is more important thandefending net neutrality, which is more a “first world” problem, Kenyan Minister of Information, Communications and Technology Joe Mucheru said on Wednesday.
Mucheru was formerly Google Sub-Sahara Africa Lead based in the Google Nairobi office.
India this month joined countries including the U.S., Brazil and the Netherlands in passing laws that restrict telecommunications companies from discriminating against Internet traffic based on content.
The ruling by India’s telecommunications regulator represented a setback to Facebook plans to expand through its Free Basics service, which delivers a limited Internet service that includes Facebook and some other tools for no cost.
Free Basics has been criticised by activists who say it threatens net neutrality, the principle that all Internet websites should be equally accessible, and could change pricing for access to different websites. It doesn’t make sense to block the provision of access to communication services to people who otherwise wouldn’t have them, Mucheru said.
“It’s like saying someone has no food, but if someone brings them bread we are not going to allow them to have the bread because they must have a balanced diet,” he said. “I don’t think that works for me.”
At least 25% of African adults use the Internet occasionally or report owning a smartphone, compared with 89% in the U.S., 80% in Europe and 64% in Latin America, according to a Feb. 22 report by the Pew Research Centre.
Kenya is close to finalising a spectrum policy that would allow almost universal access to broadband in the East African country, Mucheru said.
People who don’t have any access to the Internet often don’t understand its value. Access to services like Free Basics brings that awareness, and they’re often then willing to pay to get access to more tools and information, he said.
“Most people who talk about net neutrality are already online,” Mucheru said. “They are already using all these services, they don’t see it from the other consumer’s point of view where they have no access,” he said. “For me, net neutrality is more a first-world problem than a third-world problem.”
To be sure, allowing services like Free Basics has its down side, said Richard Bell, the Chief Executive Officer of Kooba Africa, which builds data centers that enable African users to surf websites outside the continent faster.
“Organisations like Facebook and Google have such enormous market power and deep pockets, that when they start doing these sort of projects in places like Uganda or India, it can really distort the market,” Bell said.