On July 12, 2017, a coalition of websites, technology companies, digital rights organizations, and Internet users in the United States joined forces to defend a democratizing idea that matters for Zimbabwe, especially in the final months of Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship: net neutrality.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that pushes for government transparency and digital rights, called the net neutrality day of action the day internet freedom fighters joined forces to protest the plan by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “to toss out net neutrality rules that preserve Internet freedom and prevent cable and telecommunications companies from controlling what we can see and do online.”
What’s goddamn neutrality?
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments have no right to control what we see and do online. They should treat all internet data equally. Should they discriminate against or impose different prices on Internet services based on user identity, website used or type of content, etc, they would have violated our Internet rights and freedoms.
According to EFF, without net neutrality, ISPs “can block your favorite content, throttle or slow down Internet speeds to disadvantage competitors’ content, or make you pay more than you already do to access movies and other online entertainment.”
According to Battle for the Net, a campaign initiated by U.S.-based Demand Progress, Fight for the Future and Free Press Action Fund, if big cable companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon succeed in their ongoing efforts to lobby the FCC and Congress to end net neutrality, they will acquire frightening powers. The power to slow sites down. The power to bully sites into paying huge sums of money to escape the dreaded Internet “slow lane.”
Basically, if big cable companies in the U.S succeed in their ongoing efforts to lobby the FCC and Congress to end net neutrality:
This would amount to a tax on every sector of the American economy. Every site would cost more, since they’d all have to pay big cable. Worse, it would extinguish the startups and independent voices who can’t afford to pay. If we lose net neutrality, the Internet will never be the same.
In the past few years, leading rights organizations have reported very few outrageous instances of content blocking by the Mugabe regime. Most notable was the regime’s mid-2016 temporary blocking of access to WhatsApp in response to the game-changing #ThisFlag and youth-led Tajamuka/Sesijukile protests. According to Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom on the Net report (pdf): “No websites were blocked or filtered in Zimbabwe during the coverage period. Access to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and international blog-hosting platforms are all freely available…” In Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom in the World Report, Zimbabwe’s “net freedom” status is “partly free”. Furthermore: “Internet access and usage have expanded rapidly in recent years despite frequent power outages, and access is rarely blocked or filtered, allowing online news sources to gain popularity.”
Still, the Mugabe regime effectively controls what Zimbabweans see and do online. Here’s how:
First, net neutrality is impossible in an oppressive environment dominated by: a) unaccountable spying and law enforcement agencies; b) a plethora of draconian information control laws; c) secretive centres dedicated to the interception of communications; d) mobile telephone operators and internet service providers that don’t seem to care about their users’ rights; and e) a weak opposition that prioritizes power over issues at the centre of the so-called “Zimbabwe crisis”.
Second, the Mugabe regime is heavily invested in Zimbabwe’s information and communications technology (ICT) market. It owns ZARNet, one of Zimbabwe’s dozen licensed ISPs. Two of Zimbabwe’s five international internet gateways, NetOne and the fixed network TelOne, are state-owned. The other two, Africom and Econet, are privately owned. The fifth, TeleCel, is partially government owned. Most Zimbabweans access the internet through mobile data. NetOne controls 36.4% of the share of mobile subscribers, according to a 2016 third quarter report by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), the country’s telecoms regulator.
Net neutrality under attack
To understand the precarious nature of net neutrality in Zimbabwe, one must appreciate American internet freedom fighters’ ongoing struggle to stop the FCC from rewriting the rules governing the internet.
Amazon, Facebook, Google, Kickstarter, Netflix, Reddit and Twitter are among the notable tech giants that took part in the July net neutrality day of action in the U.S. Notable public interest and civil rights groups include the American Civil Liberties Association (ACLU), EFF, Greenpeace, Common Cause, Color of Change, Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, OpenMedia, National Hispanic Media Coalition, and the Center for Media Justice. The rights groups condemned the FCC’s confirmed plan kill Title II, “the legal foundation for Net Neutrality rules that protect online free speech and innovation.” They urged their members to ask the FCC and its new pro-industry chair, Ajit Pai, to drop their planned repeal of former FCC chair Tom Wheeler’s 2015 Open Internet Order .
The participants freely criticized President Donald Trump’s appointment of Pai as the head of the independent regulator of the United States’ communications policy, arguing that his appointment will have a lasting negative impact on net neutrality. Educated at Harvard and the University of Chicago, Pai is a former legal counselor for U.S. telecom giant Verizon. He’s a confirmed member of the Republican party. He’s also famous for opposing the Open Internet Order.
As The New York Times reported back in February, as soon as Trump had picked him to lead the FCC, Pai “aggressively moved to roll back consumer protection regulations created during the Obama presidency.” According to the NYT:
Mr. Pai took a first swipe at net neutrality rules designed to ensure equal access to content on the internet. He stopped nine companies from providing discounted high-speed internet service to low-income individuals. He withdrew an effort to keep prison phone rates down, and he scrapped a proposal to break open the cable box market.
In total, as the chairman of the F.C.C., Mr. Pai released about a dozen actions in the last week, many buried in the agency’s website and not publicly announced, stunning consumer advocacy groups and telecom analysts. They said Mr. Pai’s message was clear: The F.C.C., an independent agency, will mirror the Trump administration’s rapid unwinding of government regulations that businesses fought against during the Obama administration.
In May, TechDirt wrote about the “strategy of Ajit Pai and Congress to kill net neutrality while pretending that they were protecting net neutrality.”
Watch Evan Greer, the campaign director of Fight for the Future, and former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, freely criticize the U.S. government while explaining the importance of the fight for the future of the Internet as we know it during an interview with Democracy Now!:
Net neutrality is only possible in an environment where civil society can freely call on ISPs, telecom companies and the government to respect Internet users’ rights and freedoms. Demanding such freedoms in Zimbabwe incurs the wrath of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), Mugabe’s secret police.
Zimbabwe’s draconian information control laws such as the Posts and Telecommunications Act of 2000, and the Interception of Communications Act (ICA), enacted in 2007, are against online privacy and digital rights. According to Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom in the World Report, “those who disseminate critical content online face criminal sanctions and the threat of violence.” In the past year, government, military, POTRAZ officials, and even leading opposition figures, have repeatedly issued bizarre warnings against “abusing” social media platforms. These aren’t idle warnings. The Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill, which is likely to be approved by the ruling Zanu PF-dominated legislature before the end of the year, proposes as many as 5 years in prison for “cybercrime”. To the Mugabe regime, outspoken Internet-savvy exiled Zimbabweans are mostly “diaspora cyber terrorists”. Once the bill becomes law, they’ll be extradited to Zimbabwe for prosecution.
Meanwhile, the ICA requires Zimbabwean telecom companies and ISPs to participate in the government’s surveillance agenda. They must “provide a telecommunications service which has the capacity to be intercepted.” They’re required to provide services “capable of rendering real time and full time monitoring facilities for the interception of communications” by the government. Telecom companies and ISPs who fail to advance the Mugabe regime’s surveillance agenda “shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding level twelve or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years or to both such fine and such imprisonment.”
My point is: The Mugabe regime uses fear to control what Zimbabweans can do or see online. Net neutrality is a free speech issue. It’s an equality issue: without net neutrality, equal access to Internet content is impossible.
In bed with the Mugabe regime
Contrary to to the established anti-Mugabe narrative, which dictates that the dictator’s is to blame for everything, Zimbabwe’s Internet services providers are in bed with the Mugabe regime.
As Newsweek reported in 2014:
The Netherlands became the second country to adopt Net neutrality, in 2011. It bans mobile telephone operators from blocking or charging consumers extra for using communications services that are Internet-based. As a result, mobile operators there raised charges overall to compensate for revenue lost due to the restrictions, but advocates still hail the law as a consumer victory.
Zimbabwean mobile telephone operators have never advocated for their users’ right to privacy and Internet freedom. Instead, they actually charge consumers a hefty fee for using free communications technologies such as WhatsApp. In January, TechZim reported that most subscribers rely on “bundles that cost as much as $3 a month to access specific applications like Facebook and WhatsApp.”
Furthermore, as far as I know, there are no rules rules stopping Liquid and other Zimbabwean ISPs from: a) blocking access to your favourite website, b) slowing down internet content, and c) favouring certain content with “fast internet lanes”.
Canada’s net neutrality success story
There’s no reason why Zimbabwe can’t follow in the footsteps of the Netherlands. Canada would do too. It currently has a federal government that digs net neutrality. I can’t help quoting Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, on this point:
The Liberal government has been a staunch supporter of net neutrality, regularly citing its importance. For example, Budget 2017 referenced the need to “benefit from an open and innovative Internet” and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains has emphasized the value of an open Internet in discussing telecom policy. When the Province of Quebec’s unveiled plans to mandate blocking of unlicensed gambling websites, Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly responded by focusing on the need for net neutrality and the equal treatment of Internet content…
The Canadian net neutrality success story is notable for how the government, regulator, many companies (including more recently larger providers such as Rogers and TekSavvy), and the public have supported net neutrality policies. Yet what lies behind the policies are also the real-world net neutrality threats that have emerged over the past decade.
Canada has come a long way since in 2005, when the wireless and Internet service provider Telus blocked its subscribers’ access to Voices for Change, a site that was being used by members of the Telecommunications Workers Union to fight for their rights.
Centralized Internet gateway
Finally, the need for net neutrality in Zimbabwe can be understood through the lens of Mugabe’s burgeoning digital authoritarianism.
Lately, Zimbabwean activists and rights defenders have been increasingly harnessing the power of the Internet, digital activism, social media platforms, and modern communication technologies, to plan and coordinate collective democratic action. In 2016, Internet-enabled mobile phones, social media platforms and communication apps such as WhatsApp were driving forces behind Pastor Evan Mawarire’s #ThisFlag protest and youth-led Tajamuka/Sesijukile’s #ShutDownZim protests. The regime used the protests as an opportunity to further boost its surveillance capabilities. In August 2016, it added the Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill to its suite of existing information control laws and regulations. The Bill declares war on open Internet, democracy, human rights, free flow of information, and Zimbabweans’ privacy rights, which are protected by Section 57 of the country’s 2013 constitution. It proposes the creation of a Computer Crime and Cybercrime Management Centre dedicated to the interception of Zimbabweans’ communications and seizure of computers and mobile communications devices.
But that’s not all. Zimbabwe’s proposed National Policy for Information and Communications Technology (ICT), first introduced in 2015, seeks to centralize control over the country’s internet. It will grant the government the power to block websites. If implemented, the policy would likely breathe life into Mugabe’s dream of a Chinese-style “Great Firewall” of Zimbabwe. According to Freedom House, the policy “would dramatically change Zimbabwean’s internet freedom landscape through centralized control over the country’s internet.” The organization states:
Section 5 of the document on “ICT Infrastructure” details plans to establish a single national ICT backbone to be owned by various public and private shareholders but ultimately controlled by the government. The section also mandates infrastructure sharing among telecoms, which private telecoms who have invested heavily in their own infrastructure have decried as a form of “backdoor nationalization.” Most troublingly, Section 21.3 creates “The National Backbone Company,” defined by the document as “one Super Gateway which shall be the entry and exit point for all international traffic.
Now is the time for Zimbabwean Internet freedom fighters to declare their commitment to keeping the Internet free during Zimbabwe’s 2018 transition season and after Mugabe’s departure.
This article is part of The Zimbabwean Progressive‘s “Zimbabwe Surveillance Self-Defense” initiative, whose main pre-occupation is in-depth, comparative and evidence-based independent journalism on Mugabe’s ever-evolving surveillance and digital authoritarianism. The initiative unmasks Zimbabwe’s key surveillance organizations, practices and information control laws. It brings safe communication technologies, strategies and practices to the doorsteps of Zimbabwean activists, rights defenders, journalists/bloggers, and ordinary Zimbabweans who wish to defend themselves and their families, friends and communities against government surveillance.
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, activist, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. He’s the founder and editor of these blogs: The Canadian Progressive, The Zimbabwean Progressive, and Charity Files. Follow him on Twitter: @Obiemad
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