LONG LIVE NET NEUTRALITY!What is net neutrality and why it is important
Internet is built around the idea of openness. It allows people to connect and exchange information freely, if the information or service is not illegal. Much of this is because of the idea of net neutrality.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is an idea derived from how telephone lines have worked since the beginning of the 20th century. In case of a telephone line, you can dial any number and connect to it. It does not matter if you are calling from operator A to operator B. It doesn't matter if you are calling a restaurant or a drug dealer. The operators neither block the access to a number nor deliberately delay connection to a particular number, unless forced by the law. Most of the countries have rules that ask telecom operators to provide an unfiltered and unrestricted phone service.
When the internet started to take off in 1980s and 1990s, there were no specific rules that asked that internet service providers (ISPs) should follow the same principle. But, mostly because telecom operators were also ISPs, they adhered to the same principle. This principle is known as net neutrality. An ISP does not control the traffic that passes its servers. When a web user connects to a website or web service, he or she gets the same speed. Data rate for Youtube videos and Facebook photos is theoretically same. Users can access any legal website or web service without any interference from an ISP.
Some countries have rules that enforce net neutrality but most don't. Instead, the principle is followed because that is how it has always been. It is more of a norm than a law.
How did net neutrality shape the internet?
Net neutrality has shaped the internet in two fundamental ways.
One, web users are free to connect to whatever website or service they want. ISPs do not bother with what kind of content is flowing from their servers. This has allowed the internet to grow into a truly global network and has allowed people to freely express themselves. For example, you can criticize your ISP on a blog post and the ISP will not restrict access to that post for its other subscribers even though the post may harm its business.
But more importantly, net neutrality has enabled a level playing field on the internet. To start a website, you don't need lot of money or connections. Just host your website and you are good to go. If your service is good, it will find favour with web users. Unlike the cable TV where you have to forge alliances with cable connection providers to make sure that your channel reaches viewers, on internet you don't have to talk to ISPs to put your website online.
This has led to creation Google, Facebook, Twitter and countless other services. All of these services had very humble beginnings. They started as a basic websites with modest resources. But they succeeded because net neutrality allowed web users to access these websites in an easy and unhindered way.
If there is no net neutrality, ISPs will have the power (and inclination) to shape internet traffic so that they can derive extra benefit from it. For example, several ISPs believe that they should be allowed to charge companies for services like YouTube and Netflix because these services consume more bandwidth compared to a normal website. Basically, these ISPs want a share in the money that YouTube or Netflix make.
Without net neutrality, the internet as we know it will not exist. Instead of free access, there could be "package plans" for consumers. For example, if you pay Rs 500, you will only be able to access websites based in India. To access international websites, you may have to pay a more. Or maybe there can be different connection speed for different type of content, depending on how much you are paying for the service and what "add-on package" you have bought.
Lack of net neutrality, will also spell doom for innovation on the web. It is possible that ISPs will charge web companies to enable faster access to their websites. Those who don't pay may see that their websites will open slowly. This means bigger companies like Google will be able to pay more to make access to Youtube or Google+ faster for web users but a startup that wants to create a different and better video hosting site may not be able to do that.
Instead of an open and free internet, without net neutrality we are likely to get a web that has silos in it and to enter each silo, you will have to pay some "tax" to ISPs.
What is the state of net neutrality in India?
Legally, the concept of net neutrality doesn't exist in India. Sunil Abraham, director of Centre for internet and Society in Bangalore, says that Trai, which regulates the telecom industry, has tried to come up with some rules regarding net neutrality several times. For example it invited comments on the concept of net neutrality from industry bodies and stakeholders in 2006. But no formal rules have been formed to uphold and enforce net neutrality.
However, despite lack of formal rules, ISPs in India mostly adhere to the principal of net neutrality. There have been some incidents where Indian ISPs have ignored net neutrality but these are few and far between.
Will the concept of net neutrality survive?
Will the concept of net neutrality survive?
Net neutrality is sort of gentlemen's agreement. It has survived so far because few people realized the potential of internet when it took off around 30 years ago. But now when the internet is an integral part of the society and incredibly important, ISPs across the world are trying to get the power to shape and control the traffic. But there are ways to keep net neutrality alive.
Consumers should demand that ISPs continue their hands-off approach from the internet traffic. If consumers see a violation of net neutrality, they ought to take a proactive approach and register their displeasure with the ISP. They should also reward ISPs that uphold the net neutrality.
At the same time, as Abraham says, Trai needs to come out with a set of clear and precise rules that protect the net neutrality. "We have started seeing ISPs trying to take control of the traffic that flows from their servers but Trai can regulate them. It can keep the internet open and consumer-friendly by forming rules that protect net neutrality. These are early days so it is easy to do. If ISPs manage to change the system, it may become too late," he says.
Why is Net Neutrality important for businesses?
Net Neutrality is crucial for small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs, who rely on the open Internet to launch their businesses, create a market, advertise their products and services, and distribute products to customers. We need the open Internet to foster job growth, competition and innovation.
Net Neutrality lowers the barriers of entry for entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses by ensuring the Web is a fair and level playing field. It’s because of Net Neutrality that small businesses and entrepreneurs have been able to thrive on the Internet. They use the Internet to reach new customers and showcase their goods, applications and services.
No company should be able to interfere with this open marketplace. ISPs are by definition the gatekeepers to the Internet, and without Net Neutrality, they would seize every possible opportunity to profit from that gatekeeper control.
Without Net Neutrality, the next Google would never get off the ground.
Why is Net Neutrality important for communities of color?
The open Internet allows communities of color to tell their own stories and to organize for racial and social justice.
The mainstream media have failed to allow people of color to speak for themselves. And thanks to economic inequality and runaway media consolidation, people of color own just a handful of broadcast stations. The lack of diverse ownership is a primary reason why the media have gotten away with portraying communities of color stereotypically.
The open Internet gives marginalized voices opportunities to be heard. But without Net Neutrality, ISPs could block unpopular speech and prevent dissident voices from speaking freely online. Without Net Neutrality, people of color would lose a vital platform.
And without Net Neutrality, millions of small businesses owned by people of color wouldn't be able to compete against larger corporations online, which would further deepen the economic inequality in our nation’s most vulnerable communities.
Nuts and Bolts:
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 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.