What’s Net neutrality?
It is the principle that all traffic on the Internet must be treated equally by Internet service providers. Those advocating Net neutrality believe all bits of data are equal, and, therefore, should not be discriminated on the basis of content, site or user. This has largely been the default mode since Internet started.
Why has there been so much of noise about Net neutrality in recent months?
First, India’s top telecom company Bharti Airtel, towards the end of last year, 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 regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services.
Then, Facebook brought to India internet.org, a pre-selected bouquet of Web sites offered free to subscribers of Reliance Communications. There was not much controversy then.
The buzz became really big after TRAI put out a 118-page 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.
By evening of Tuesday, over 4.2 lakh mails had been sent in support of Net neutrality through the savetheinternet.in Web site. Political parties such as the Congress, political leaders such as Arvind Kejriwal and celebrities such as Shah Rukh Khan joined the bandwagon, as has the comedy group All India Bakchod through a video. All of them argue why the Internet should not be touched. TRAI will be open to taking comments till April 24, and counter comments by May 8. In between all this, Airtel last week launched Airtel Zero, which is a free offering of a slew of apps that sign up with the telecom provider. On Tuesday, Flipkart pulled out of the platform after initially agreeing to be on it, saying it was committed to Net neutrality.
Who benefits from Net neutrality? How?
Every Internet user. Think through how you would like to browse the Internet. Wouldn’t you like to access the Web without worrying about how differently videos will be charged compared to other forms of content? Wouldn’t you like to access the Web without the telecom service provider getting to serve some sites faster than others? If yes for both, you are pro-Net neutrality.
New ventures benefit too. In fact, one of the key reasons for start-ups to have come up in a big way in recent decades is the openness of the Internet. The Internet has reduced transaction costs and levelled the playing field.
A start-up can come up with an app today, and can immediately attract a global audience. The likes of Googles and Facebooks could have struggled to grow if the Internet had not been open.
Then, why do we need to think about regulating the Internet?
Essentially because the telecom companies do not like the way the apps are riding on their networks for free. The companies complain that voice-calling and messaging apps are cannibalising on their business. On top of all this, it is they who have to invest billions in getting access to spectrum and build networks as also adhere to regulations.
So, absence of Net neutrality will benefit telecom companies?
It could make them a gatekeeper to a valuable resource, a role that supporters of Net neutrality feel will be misused to create winners and losers. They could charge companies a premium for access to users.
It would not be a telecom companies versus internet players issue, as could be mistakenly perceived. For, the absence of Net neutrality could also benefit established Internet companies who are flush with money. They could nip challengers in the bud with vastly higher payoffs to telecom companies.
Is this an issue in India alone?
No. The Federal Communications Commission just recently voted for what is seen as strong Net neutrality rules. This is to ensure Internet service providers neither block, throttle traffic nor give access priority for money. Europe is trying to correct a 2013 proposal for Net neutrality, in which privileged access was allowed to ‘specialised services.’ This was vague and threatened Net neutrality. Chile last year banned zero-rated schemes, those where access to social media is given free to telecom subscribers.