Issue Which Touches Your Life

More than any other invention of our time, the Internet has unlocked possibilities we could just barely imagine a generation ago. Over the years, internet made it possible for countless start-ups, right from the Googles to the Flipkarts, to dream and act big. Now, the question is how did they do it?

By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, as it provided with a ready made information expressway through which one can generate an idea in the nondescript village of Bihar but the moment she uploads the same on the internet, a techno-geek sitting in his office in the Silicon valley has access to it. Further, it also promulgated equalization between the haves and the have-nots. By igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known. And the big reason it has been able to drive such incredible growth and innovation is: Internet providers have treated Internet traffic equally.

They have given their customers equal access to all lawful websites and services on the internet, without giving priority to any website over another. That’s a principle is simply known as “net neutrality.” To understand it further, we can say that Net neutrality means that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the internet equally, not discriminating or charging deferentially based on user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.

In layman’s terms we can say that it means that an entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money who are running bigger sites. It is a belief that the internet is a utility – like water or electricity – and shouldn’t be broken up into ‘slow lanes’ and ‘fast lanes’. The key ideas in net neutrality include: No blocking: If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, internet service provider (ISP) should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot in reaching his intended customers.

No paid prioritization: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” just because it does not pay a fee or does not invite more visitors (in IT terminology it is called eyeballs) so that more advertisers could piggy ride on the same. Also, no “zero rating” or making some sites free over others should be allowed.

No telecom- style licensing of Internet companies: The Internet has grown due to its open character, and what is called permission-less innovation. Anybody can connect to the Internet and offer an application or a service, or provide a website containing blogs and other content. But introducing licensing will create closed internet. Big companies like Facebook will be able to take a license from the government and buy bandwidth in bulk from telecom operators, and offer their service to customers at zero or low data cost. While small startups won’t be able to afford licenses. This would inhibit competition. Recent TRAI consultation paper on regulation recommends licensing.

No gateways: Internet gateways have been an attempt by different corporation to grant limited access to internet in the form of access to only some specified sites.

“Although Net neutrality” has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation and should have been accepted by one and all as an unimpeachable principle but in last few years it has been made a subject of raging debate worldwide by telecom companies. On one side of the debate are proponents of free internet who see free internet indispensible for digital space to remain competitive and the whole ecology intact with its Unique Service Obligation of being democratic.

They argue that in absence of net neutrality a few giant companies will end up controlling, or at least mediating, the Internet experience for much of the population because of special deals they’ve struck with Internet providers for prioritized or subsidized data delivery. In lucid terms, if the aforesaid happens and Net Neutrality ends than that proverbial girl from Bihar hinterlands (about which we talked in the introductory lines) would have her things accessed by anybody on the internet at a much slower rate than the big entrepreneurs who has struck a revenue deal with the Internet service providers even though his file is heavier and that girl’s file is simple text file.

While on the other side are telecommunication companies who after spending billions of dollars in setting up infrastructure and bringing themselves under regulatory scrutiny, can’t bear the fact that numerous applications ride on their networks for free (read the aforesaid case given regarding instant messaging services killing the SMS market). Some of the apps have millions of subscribers and command valuations of billions of dollars while others like Skype and WhatsApp compete head on with the voice and messaging offerings of the telcos. So they argue that they must get a slice in the revenue streams of these internet based companies for creating, maintaining and upgrading networks which the internet companies use, and have devised such ways for the same that have the potential to threaten the neutrality of the internet and unleash monopolistic tendencies in digital space. e.g. Internet .org , zero rating , Airtel one touch etc.

They argue that strong net neutrality laws will lead to a slowdown, in broadband build out, because they are having hard time in recovering their investment in the sector and will have no incentive to make large investments to develop advanced fiber-optic networks if they are prohibited from charging higher preferred access fees to companies that wish to take advantage of the expanded capabilities of such networks. But, what’s not to be forgotten is that the telcos do benefit from the apps that piggyback on them. More app usage means more data consumed and more money inflow.

Companies make money by charging individuals and businesses monthly fees for access to the network. If that revenue was inadequate to cover the cost of running networks, telecom companies always has the option to raise prices for the data usage of the user. But the fact is, if anything, prices have actually fallen as it has become cheaper to provide service. Big telecom companies like Vodafone, Bharti Airtel etc , are making huge profits in mobile data business by the increase in volumes but the per bit usage charge has fallen over the years. But, can’t we see that it is the overall phenomenon of the revolution called the internet and telecom. With the improvement in technology, the per-usage charge has always been falling. Based on this plea, the mobile service providing companies cannot cry wolf.

On the other hand, the stand of governments around the world on the issue has been mixed. In US, President Barak Obama fought the presidential campaign strongly supporting net neutrality. The Federal Communications Commission – FCC (an independent agency of the United States government, to regulate interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable in US) adopted strong net neutrality rules that would prevent cable and phone companies from creating fast and slow lanes on the Internet.

But in Europe, there is still no consensus on the issue. The EU’s net neutrality bill began as 2013 proposal from European commission and since then there have been many flip-flops. Recently , the European Council, which is made up of the 28 national governments of European Union members, adopted a proposal that would allow telecommunications companies to charge Internet businesses like Netflix and Google fees to deliver their videos and other content to users faster putting smaller companies at a disadvantage that cannot afford to pay for preferential treatment. But contours of elaborate legislation are still being debated.

In June 2010, the National Congress of Chile, amended its telecommunications law in order to preserve network neutrality, becoming the first country in the world to do so. It explicitly banned zero-rated schemes, those where access to social media is given free to telecom subscribers.

While in India, on the other hand, the debate on net neutrality began in 2014 when India’s top telecom company Bharti Airtel, decided to charge subscribers extra for use of apps such as Skype and Viber. These apps compete with the voice and messaging services of telecom providers, and are even cheaper.

There was uproar, after which Airtel stayed its decision, saying it would wait for Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services.

The buzz became really big after TRAI put out consultation paper asking the public for its opinion on 20 questions, most of them about how the Internet can be regulated. Views were also sought on net neutrality.

Within days lakhs of mails were sent in support of net neutrality. (But the saddest part is that owing to go that extra mile on transparency, TRAI has made public all those letters along with their sender’s mail-id thus compromising with their privacy and making them vulnerable to hackers, advertisers, spammers and fishers.

TRAI’s view on this mistake is still awaited). It’s well acknowledged that the Internet has impacted the world of business like no other technology has in recent decades. It has helped start-ups with hardly any capital and clout to still make a mark. By rejecting net neutrality, which will enable telcos to play the gatekeeper to a valuable resource and give them the power to create winners and losers in digital space, would be like shutting the door on the entrepreneurial aspirations of millions. The cost of ambition of telecos will be the loss of the Internet’s openness.

Further, if ISPs and mobile service providers lobbying goes on to succeed and the principle of Net Neutrality ends than it could affect you in many ways. May be, than, your small lending bank or may be District Cooperative bank getting to the last farmer of the proverbial queue would have its internet speed and connectivity differentiated to make the bigger urban banks have seamless speed serving their urbane rich customers. Do not you think that it would be like the last nail in the coffin of the democratic principles on which the whole concept of internet was built-upon. Moreover, our internet penetration is one of the lowest and to rectify it we are venturing into National

Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) which aims to spread broadband across 2.5 lakh village panchayats by the end of 2016 (but missed its target of completing roll out in first 50,000 panchayats by March 2015). Hence, this type of speed differentiation by ending the net neutrality, would make the internet lose its impartial and democratic character vis-à-vis a carrier of information. This would dent the forces of this revolution to make its deserving mark into the hinterlands of India.