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Is Digicel for Real? – If So You Should be Afraid, Very Afraid!

Recently Digicel repeated their calls for Caribbean governments to regulate and tax two of the FANG companies, otherwise known as FaceBook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, four of the biggest internet companies in the world.

Some might say the timing, of this latest appeal coming ahead of CANTO’s Annual Conference in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic beginning 15th July, was coincidence, but I don’t believe in coincidence. Particularly as this is part of a persistent demand by them for regulation of these and other Over The Top or OTT companies. This shot across the bows’ comes on the eve of the Caribbean’s Ministers of Telecommunications and industry leaders gathering for CANTO 2017. But what is Digicel’s concern? What are the bigger issues? And why should it matter to you?

In the latest salvo, Digicel called for Caribbean governments to regulate and seek to tax Google, FaceBook and WhatsApp and in the words of legal counsel for Digicel there is “a greater need for policy-makers to protect consumers, as well as revenues for governments, while ensuring a level playing field for telecoms operators.”

So let’s for a moment assume Digicel, in the modern language, has “our back” as consumers what do we need protecting from? While I agree we should be protected from some “content” and “fake news” on FastBook, however I don’t think that’s what they have in mind. As for “government revenues”, more developed countries where these companies have a physical presence and employ staff have been trying to get Google and others to increase or pay their the amount of Corporation Tax, but the nearest Google office would be Miami so what taxes are our governments passing up?

If you remember FaceBook own WhatsApp and that both platforms support calling and messaging, then you’re beginning to connect the dots! So now we’re beginning to get a fuller picture of what Digicel’s beef is. Then we’re left with another question: “how would the resultant extra costs for WhatsApp calls protect consumers?”

Then there’s the “regulation” of these internet companies. If these companies were to be regulated, how long would it be before the rest of the FANG quartet, Amazon and Netflix are in Digicel’s cross-hairs? The regulation and charging of internet content contravenes the principles of “Net Neutrality”, which at its core means that none of the content or services traveling on the internet should be impeded or fast-tracked or given preferential treatment.

While I don’t carry a brief for any of the big four – and should any of them want my counsel I’m happy to come to an arrangement – I think we the consumers or stakeholders should have concerns. Let’s assume for a moment Digicel are able to sell their argument and are successful in having these companies regulated or taxes are levied on these companies. How long would it be before other online services are drawn into the net or caught in the cross-fire of this digital drive-by?

How long would it be before online data storage services like DropBox, or backup services such as Carbonite are taxed or regulated? Why not levy a charge on Microsoft’s Office 365, Slack or QuickBooks online? I haven’t touched on the many Online Learning platforms that support many of our distance learners. Where do you stop?

So if you thought internet regulation and governance is only the concern of “Techies” and of course lawyers, I hope I’ve dispelled that notion. I suggest you look into getting involved with your country’s Internet Society or ICANN activities. Anyone can get involved with national level ICANN activities for free, visit www.icann.org for more information.