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Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality

What is net neutrality?

If net neutrality was to be defined in a single line it would go like this:

“The premise of net neutrality is that all data on the Internet should be treated equally.”

Expanding on the above, a more comprehensive definition would be:

“Net neutrality means that Internet service providers (like Airtel, Reliance etc. who are responsible for our broadband and mobile Internet connections) shouldn’t be allowed to give preferential treatment to select websites, online services or apps. These ISPs should also not be allowed to discriminate against any websites, online services or apps.”

Net neutrality means Internet that allows everyone to communicate freely. It means a service provider should allow access to all content and applications regardless of the source and no websites or pages should be blocked, as long as they aren’t illegal. All websites can co-exist without hampering others. All websites are accessible at the same speed and no particular website of application is favored. For instance – like electricity, common for all. Net neutrality also means all web sites and content creators are treated equal, and you no one have to pay extra for faster Internet speed to a particular site/service.

This means that ISPs can’t ask some websites, online services or apps to pay extra in order to make it easier for consumers to access them. For instance, Airtel shouldn’t be allowed to take money from Flipkart and then let Airtel broadband and mobile Internet customers load the Flipkart website faster, or scrap all data charges when the Flipkart app is being used.

Conversely, an ISP shouldn’t be allowed to penalize websites, online services or apps because they haven’t paid extra charges. Continuing the same example from above, Airtel shouldn’t be allowed to put competing e-commerce websites like Snapdeal or Amazon at a disadvantage by giving Flipkart a boost just because Flipkart paid up. Also, while currently this discrimination may only come to life in the form of advantages given to companies that pay the ISP, it’s not very difficult to imagine a time when certain websites and apps are made unusable or entirely blocked on certain networks just because they didn’t pay up.

Why should you bother or what will happen if there is no net neutrality?

Net Neutrality

To put it out straight, if there is no net neutrality, the Internet won’t function as we’ve known it too. It will mean Internet Service Providers (ISP) will be able to charge companies like YouTube or Netflix as they consume more bandwidth, and eventually the load of the extra sum will be pushed to the consumers. Similarly, ISPs can then create slow as well as fast Internet lanes, which will mean all websites cannot be accessed at the same speed and one can do so only on paying an additional sum. For instance, currently, I have a standard data package and access all the content at the same speed, irrespective of whether its an international website or Indian. Similarly, ISPs can also charge extra for the free calls you make using services like WhatsApp, Skype and others, and eventually the load of additional payable sum by the OTT players will be pushed onto consumers.

Net Neutrality is extremely important for small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs, who can simply launch their businesses online, advertise the products and sell them openly, without any discrimination. It is essential for innovation and creating job opportunities. Big companies like Google, Twitter and several others are born out of net neutrality. With increasing Internet penetration in India and given that we are becoming a breeding ground for startups and entrepreneurs, the lack of net neutrality should worry us greatly. Besides, it is very important for freedom of speech, so that one can voice their opinion without the fear of being blocked or banned.

Even though everybody and their grandmother supports net neutrality, is there a contrarian viewpoint?

As it always happens in a debate, net neutrality is being both derided and defended by different parties. And even though it may appear like net neutrality has received universal support, it is important to understand the other side of the debate as well.

But first, let’s take a quick look at why net neutrality is being defended:

1. Without net neutrality, it would be very easy for ISPs to mould the browsing habits of its users with the help of pricing slabs, different speeds for different sites and other methods. So, if Airtel wanted its users to visit Flipkart, it would make it exceedingly easy and advantageous to do so and put competing sites on the back foot which would clearly be an anti-competition move.

2. Net neutrality also ensures that small, new companies can compete against established big names on the Internet fairly. If net neutrality did not exist then big companies would shackle their competition with the implicit ability to be able pay more to the ISPs to ensure better service, something that most start-ups wouldn’t be able to do.

3. Now, this scenario may lie at the furthest end of the slippery slope, but here it is: since the absence of net neutrality could mean that an ISP will get money from companies, that relationship may be enough to compel the ISP to mute online criticism against one of its paying partners.

4. Another scenario that exists without net neutrality is that the Internet becomes a stratified mess and you’ll be forced to choose packages of websites and services like you do with your DTH subscription. If you want unrestricted access to the Internet, the ISPs could force you to pay through the nose.

Net Neutrality, Internet

5. The anti-net neutrality arguments become even more vociferous when it comes to VoIP and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Viber. Since these services directly affect the telcos’ bottomline, there is the significant possibility that the companies behind these apps will have to register for licenses in order to conduct operations in India. This means that unless the companies behind messaging and VoIP apps decide to pay the government for licenses, you won’t be able to use them.

Net Neutrality, Airtel, Reliance, Tata, internet, free

These are only a few of the many arguments that net neutrality proponents put forward in defence of keeping the Internet neutral. However, when we get to the debate against net neutrality, the focus of the arguments is markedly different. While the pro net neutrality talking points almost always have the consumer as their focal point, the other side of the debate seems to be focused on the telecom operators and how a ‘neutral’ Internet ensures financial doom. In fact, TRAI recently published a consultation paper that almost exclusively focuses on how many VoIP services, apps and websites are taking undue advantage of the infrastructure set up by telcos who spent bucketloads of money setting it all up. It’s a long paper but even if you just skim through it, this theme jumps out at you.

A graph from the TRAI policy paper that shows drop in SMS use.
A graph from the TRAI policy paper that shows drop in SMS use. 

The fact is that in order to support dismantling net neutrality, you have to believe in the telcos’ claim that without earning revenue from VoIP services and websites like YouTube, they will be forced to either pass on huge costs to the consumer or to accept massive losses.

A graph from the TRAI policy paper showing dropping growth of voice calls over mobile & increasing growth of VoIP.
A graph from the TRAI policy paper showing dropping growth of voice calls over mobile & increasing growth of VoIP. 

Apart from the arguments that are in line with the above, let’s take a look at some of the other talking points put forward against net neutrality:

1. ISPs argue that they can increase the overall efficiency of their networks if they’re allowed to ‘actively’ manage them. This means that ISPs can decide how to shape Internet traffic so that heavy Internet users don’t affect the experience of light users. ISPs also claim that this will allow them to give preference to certain types of online services that are necessary and should be prioritized, such as communication channels used by hospitals or emergency response services during a disaster.

2. ISPs also argue that adopting a blanket net neutrality policy will give rise to security risks and increase piracy and cyber crime. ISPs claim that the only way they can help the government to police the Internet better is if they can manage it.

3. One of the more ideological arguments against net neutrality is that it will give too much power to the government organisation that will be responsible for enforcing net neutrality. Some net neutrality detractors have argued that it’s better for user privacy and competition if the ISPs themselves manage the Internet rather than letting a governmental body have control.

It may be simplistic to say so but it does appear that the anti-net neutrality stance basically boils down to one point: You should implicitly trust the ISPs because they will always have your best interests at heart. Now, whether you agree with that statement should tell you where you stand on the net neutrality debate.

There is, however, one aspect of the telcos services, which goes against net neutrality, that appears worth considering, especially in a country like India. I am specifically talking about a service like which could work as a great tool to increase Internet penetration in rural areas and places where Internet use is often looked at as a luxury. Under the service, Reliance mobile users will be able to access 38 websites for free, including popular ones like Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Wikipedia, NDTV, Aaj Tak, BBC, Cricinfo, Bing and OLX. Yes, it does seem like that list was drawn arbitrarily but it can’t be denied that these are very popular websites. I cannot in good conscience say that someone who couldn’t afford to use the Internet shouldn’t get to do so in whatever capacity. Do I wish services like offered more choice or even let users pick the websites that they’d want to access for free? Yes, that would be ideal but I’m also aware of the economic realities. If the scope of services like is focused towards increasing rural Internet penetration and awareness, then I can’t really argue against it, not when I have easy access to the Internet at relatively decent speeds while many others don’t.

The debate over whether services like flagrantly violate net neutrality and their efficacy in helping bridge the digital divide in Internet starved areas of the country has been wonderfully talked about over at Medianama.  

How activists have been fighting for it in the west?

Net neutrality isn’t something new and many activists have been battling to achieve it in the west.

In 2010, FCC had passed an order to prevent broadband Internet service providers from blocking or meddling with the traffic on the Web. Known as the ‘Open Internet Order’, it ensured the Internet remained a level playing field for all.

However, in 2014, the court said the FCC lacked the authority to do so and enforce rules. This means, telecom companies who were earlier forced to follow the rules pf net neutrality started adopting unruly ways. This also paved way for ISPs to monitor data on their networks and also allowing governments to ban or block data. Besides banning or blocking data, we also jad the high profile Netflix-Comcast tussle.

Recently, FCC has approved “net neutrality” rules that prevent Internet providers such as Comcast and Verizon from slowing or blocking Web traffic or from creating Internet fast lanes that content providers such as Netflix must pay for. European Union member states have also been striving for net neutrality.

No more a thing of the west – Net neutrality in India

Taking the recent events into account, its time net neutrality is imposed in India too.

Since the past couple of years, the instances of Internet censorship in India have increased manifold. In 2011, India adopted the new ‘IT Rules 2011’ that supplemented the IT Act 2000. These rules made it mandatory for Internet intermediaries to remove objectionable content within 36 hours of receiving complaint. But the terms included were vague and open to interpretations. These rules received sharp criticism, but they have prevailed. In 2011, government also drew flak as it asked major sites like Google, Facebook and Yahoo to ‘pre-screen’ content and remove any objectionable, defamatory content from going live.Government requests for banning content has also been on rise over the past couple of years.

On the other hand, with the increasing popularity of instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber and others, telcos had started making noise against the accelerated adoption of these services. Throughout last year, they’ve have been quite vocal about their dislike for over-the-top (OTT) services, who have been cannibalizing their main revenue streams – calls and SMSes.

There was buzz around a fee being imposed on popular OTT services, but the matter fizzled out soon after TRAI rejected telcos’ proposal to do so. In a bid to make up for the losing revenue, Airtel decided to play evil Santa on Christmas 2014 and announced an extra charge on making VoIP calls. The Twitterati had gone all out condeming Airtel for the act, and the service provider had to soon retract its decision. Net neutrality got yet another blow in India with the recent announcements from Reliance and Airtel.

In India, Facebook has teamed up with Reliance Communications in an effort to bring to smartphone as well as feature phone users. But at the Mobile World Congress, telecom service providers such as Vodafone, Airtel and Telenor have made their discomfort clear when it comes to offering free Internet services over expensive telecom networks.

In order to compete with Reliance, Airtel announced Zero marketing platform allowing customers to access apps of participating app developers at zero data charges. Now, you may be wondering what is wrong if someone wants to offer free Internet? Free internet sounds tempting, but you need to be aware that you are only getting free access to services/apps which have struck a deal with the telcos. App developers and services who are flush with funds, will not find it an issue to pay telcos for data charges incurred by users. But this can leave app developers, specially start ups, who cannot afford Airtel or Reliance’s data rates at a definite disadvantage.

In India, the concept of net neutrality doesn’t exist legally. However, ISPs try to moderately not violate any laws. They’ve approached Trai for the losing revenues and are awaiting Trai’s decision on regulation IM app by OTT players. Most decisions here are made by DoT and Trai. However, it would be a good move to get things legally on paper, while Internet access in India is still at its infancy.

You can read the entire TRAI consultation paper here.

Source: Digit,


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