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Internet Way of Networking 9 July 2021

How Working ‘The Internet Way’ Helped the Middle East and North Africa Score Social and Economic Benefits

Nermine El Saadany
By Nermine El SaadanyRegional Vice President - Middle East

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), some countries have responded to the challenges of the global pandemic by enacting policy changes, like temporarily lifting VoIP bans so citizens can communicate more easily. It’s giving the region a glimpse of the instant social and economic benefits of a thriving Internet. But are there other policies and regulations in the region that could be improved to reduce harm to the critical properties of the Internet—and the healthy economy it fosters? The Internet Society’s new study, Internet Governance in the Middle East and North Africa, explores this question.

The strength and success of the Internet is due to its foundation of five critical properties that, altogether, ensure it works for everyone. Unfortunately, governments worldwide, including in MENA, are increasingly making decisions that could impact and harm this foundation. Even worse, they might not even know it. To make sure we can all use the Internet to its full potential, especially during times of crisis, governments should strive to safeguard this foundation against any policies or regulations that might cause harm. It’s why the Internet Society has developed an Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit.

Internet Governance in the Middle East and North Africa highlights how several policies and regulations in the region might harm these critical properties. This includes data localization, VoIP bans, Internet shutdowns, content filtering, Internet exchange point (IXP) restrictions, and international gateways.

Regulations in these areas are usually triggered by the need to implement an incomplete reform of the telecom sector, in which the government maintains its ownership to the incumbent provider. In other cases, these policies and regulations are set in an attempt to ensure the privacy and security of users in general, and in time of political disturbances.

However, the report found that each policy had a direct impact on at least one of the critical properties of the Internet, thereby hindering its resilience and accessibility. Here’s how:

  • Data localization requirements are often framed as a means to secure and protect sensitive information like financial and healthcare data, and there are arguably economic incentives to develop this local data market. However, it also risks infringing the accessibility of the Internet’s infrastructure, and undermines the benefits of a global network.
  • VoIP bans are often intended to protect the revenue of the licensed telecom provider. However, fixed telephone incumbents in the Middle East are state owned, which means the direct revenue benefit is for the government. Furthermore, VoIP bans hinder the general-purpose property of the Internet.
  • Internet shutdowns are usually state-led actions intended to curb public disturbances. The consequences of prohibiting Internet access cannot be overlooked.
  • Content filtering incentives are similar to Internet shutdowns, and this measure affects more than one critical property: it runs contrary to the concept of decentralized management, and hinders both the Internet’s accessible infrastructure and ability to act as a general-purpose network.
  • Internet exchange point (IXP) restrictions: IXPs enable content providers and other organizations to directly exchange traffic without having to purchase transit. Placing restrictions on their deployment and usage result in centralized management, which runs counter to the core principle of decentralized management that underpins the success of the Internet.
  • International gateways in countries where there is little competition are controlled by the fixed incumbent, and thus help support the revenues of those operators. However, the market power at the gateway also harms several critical properties.

Along with the negative impact these social- and economic-driven regulations have on the Internet’s foundation, the consequences are especially dire for users. Maintaining state-ownership of the incumbent keeps prices high and limits adoption of the Internet. Shutdown of services and content filtering directly affect people, especially in time of lockdown, when they are more reliant on the Internet than ever for public health communications. And restricting Internet exchange point operations can impact the resilience of the Internet, a vital resource.

The benefits the Internet brings to people, businesses, and government services are crucial and growing by the minute. This was very clear during the pandemic, yet it will continue long after it is over. The more MENA countries address issues that affect critical properties of the Internet and promote Internet Way of Networking, the more the Internet can deliver economic and social benefits.

Explore the Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit to make sure policy, technology, and business decisions don’t harm the Internet.

Image by David Rodrigo via Unsplash

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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