CAPE TOWN – Telecommunications giant MTN has brought to an end its #FreeTwitter service. Many South African Twitter users have reacted negatively to this development partly due to high data costs in the country. This development should, however, be welcomed by South Africans who care about the country's digital economy.

The idea of zero-rating technology platforms, especially tech giants, is a bad idea for the local digital economy and innovation.

One of the greatest features of the internet is its ability to enable innovation by creating equality for all.

The fact that MTN enabled free access to Twitter while local solutions were not enjoying similar privileges should not be repeated.

When the internet was created equality was one of its core values. It was designed to enable anyone, poor or rich, big and small to create something and present it on the internet and have similar opportunity to access the market.

This unique feature of the internet is what made it possible for a student such as Mark Zuckerberg through Facebook to challenge the tech giant such as Microsoft from his dorm room at Harvard University.

In the absence of equality created by the internet, it would have been impossible for start-ups (also founded by students) such as Google 20 years ago to take on leading tech giants at the time.

Technology giants

If local technology start-ups are to create technology giants, zero-rating implemented by MTN will have to be discouraged.

While some users enjoy the privilege of using a free service, such privilege comes at the expense of the local digital economy. At a time when the country is in need of all sorts of interventions to boost the economy, everything should be done to support the local digital economy.

While the service by MTN may be considered noble by some and to some extent enabling access to information, users should not be blind to the fact that this offer was used as a crafty marketing tool to attract clients to MTN.

At the same time it may have exacerbated the echo chamber challenge. It may have created the perception that Twitter is the only platform for engagement online, which is not a true reflection of the internet eco-system in South Africa.

MTN is one of the few telecoms companies that is leading and enabling the digital economy in the African continent. Its role in driving innovation in the country, and the continent, through innovation awards is commended and should be celebrated.

The telecoms giant can, however, do better in enabling the African digital economy. It can start doing this by discouraging the practice of zero-rating tech platforms across the continent.

Technology leaders should also do more to champion locally produced technology solutions and find ways to support them whenever there's an opportunity even if it means prioritising them over global tech giants.

Imagine if MTN had zero-rated (tech platforms) and supported a local version of a Twitter platform.

Such a philosophy is what allowed Jack Ma to create Alibaba. He understood the value of building and supporting a Chinese-built system.

The time has come for African tech giants such as MTN to deliberately support the local tech start-up eco-system. South Africa needs to take Net-Neutrality seriously or the colonisation of South Africa's virtual environment is upon us.

Wesley Diphoko is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Infonomist. He also founded Kaya Labs, a platform that develops tech leaders from previously disadvantaged communities. You can follow him on Twitter via: @WesleyDiphoko

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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