Imagine that you’ve never used the internet. Go on, imagine it. No Facebook, no email, no Twitter, no BBC News, no V3, no Reddit, no weird sites about why alien lizard creatures control us. It seems unbelievable doesn’t it?
Yet, in our hyper-connected world of 3G, 4G, WiFi, fibre broadband and so on, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is online - far from it.
Data from the Office for National Statistics released last week showed that a staggering six million UK adults have never used the internet.
And data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) this week found that over half of the world's population, that's around four billion people, are still not online and that those in least developed nations are least likely to be online.
This will change, though, as the ITU data also showed that mobile broadband subscriptions are rising all the time as this becomes the most cost-efficient and convenient way for people in developing nations to get online.
It will be fascinating to see how the web evolves as more people get online, because with half the world still offline there’s clearly plenty of changes ahead as new ideas emerge from the next generation of web citizens.
The evolution of the web
But in order to realise this next stage of the web’s evolution it is vital that net neutrality remains the bedrock of the web.
New startups must enjoy the same treatment as those that have already benefited from the web were afforded so their ideas can rise organically and prove their worth on a level playing field. This is worth fighting for.
Indeed, it has been interesting to note the backlash to Facebook’s Internet.org plans, after 67 digital rights groups from around the world accused the firm of undermining this concept and risking net neutrality and web equality.
“In its present conception, Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation," the groups said in the letter.
Similar concerns have been raised by technology companies in India, claiming that Facebook is creating a 'sponsored internet'.
Facebook has denied this, of course, claiming that Internet.org is about opening people’s eyes to the web.
“We are convinced that, as more and more people gain access to the internet, they will see the benefits and want to use even more services,” Facebook said in response.
“We believe this so strongly that we have worked with operators to offer basic services to people at no charge, convinced that new users will quickly want to move beyond basic services and pay for more diverse, valuable services."
Facebook’s message sounds plausible and the firm is ploughing millions into these efforts, even testing gliders that could deliver the web to remote regions of the world.
But this is obviously not an altruistic endeavour. Facebook needs to grow and with four billion people still to come online there’s a lot of growth to be had.
So if Facebook is the one that gets people online with its Internet.org initiative, which just happens to offer Facebook access (alongside other pre-selected services), it will benefit hugely and at the expense of rivals now and the future.
Facebook is not the real ‘enemy’ here, though. That role is more readily applied to the big telecoms operators which, admittedly, are the ones that have spent the big bucks actually building the infrastructure that powers the web.
It’s understandable that they want to maximise their return on these investments by being able to charge those firms that benefit the most from sending content down their pipes.
Netflix is generally cited as the biggest example of why a two-tiered internet is needed, as data suggests that during the evenings it is responsible for a third of US web traffic.
Telecoms operators want Netflix to pay for this demand. But to create a system where this is allowed - essentially a two-tiered or even multi-tiered internet - where the rich and powerful prosper at the expense of everyone else would ruin the web forever.
Innovation would suffer, new ideas would stall, incumbents would become overly powerful, free from the concern that one misstep and there are numerous up-and-coming rivals willing to offer web users a different, maybe better, experience.
For instance, what if a newer and better Netflix came along, one that was able to stream content at a fraction of the bandwidth, at a tenth of the cost, but because of the end of net neutrality was not able to afford a top-tier service?
There are efforts to enshrine net neutrality in law, but nothing is certain. The US Federal Communications Commission adopted rules last year enshrining net neutrality, effectively meaning that it must be treated equally. However, this is by no means a done deal and years of legal challenges lie ahead.
Meanwhile, there are concerns in Europe that states are readying new laws that will undermine net neutrality, something rights groups have already said must not happen. Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has also warned against this.
There are four billion people still yet to come online and we must make sure that they come to the web as the rest of us did - in an open, free and fair way. This six minute rap about net neutrality sums up these thoughts nicely (trust me).
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