ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT: Net Neutrality

 

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. If we want the current state of affairs to remain intact then it’s important to know what is meant by net neutrality.[1]

What is net neutrality?

By definition net neutrality requires that internet service providers (ISP’s) to enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favouring or blocking particular products or websites unless they are illegal. In simple terms it means the internet that allows everyone to communicate freely.[2] The idea of net neutrality has been derived from and is akin to the manner in which telephone lines have been used since the very beginning. In case of a telephone line we can dial any number and it does not matter from where we are calling and whom we are calling, whether it is 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. So, when the internet started to take off in 1980s and 1990s, there were no specific rules that required internet service providers to follow the same principle but they adhered to the same principle i.e. of net neutrality.[3]

Now because the internet service providers follow the principle of net neutrality, today when we start our computers or phones and open a web browser such as Chrome or Safari, we can access over 100million domain names with just a few clicks. Our data costs do not change whether we open Flipkart or Gmail or whether we download an application or download a video or order a pizza. Our data provider does not discriminate between different kinds of content. This is the benefit of a neutral net, a system which has worked to the advantage of both internet users and numerous start-ups.[4]

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. Two, net neutrality has enabled a level playing field on the internet. To start a website, you do not need a 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 do not have to talk to ISPs to put your website on the World Wide Web. This has led to the creation of 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.[5]

What will happen if there is no net neutrality?

If there is no net neutrality, the internet will not function as we have known it to function. It will mean that ISPs 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 also 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 you have a standard data package and access all the content at the same speed, irrespective of whether it is an international website or an Indian website. Similarly, ISPs can also charge extra for the free calls you make using services like Whatsapp, Skype, etc.[6]

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. The websites of those who do not pay requisite charges will open slowly. This means that bigger companies like Google will be able to pay more but a start-up will be disadvantaged by this mandate.[7] Therefore, this means that if net neutrality does not exist then ISPs will definitely gain and earn more revenue but start ups will be pushed out of the market.

What is the state of net neutrality in India?

Legally, the concept of net neutrality does not exist in India. Sunil Abraham, Director of Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, had said that Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which regulates the telecom industry, had tried to come up with some rules regarding net neutrality several times. For example it had invited comments on the concept of net neutrality from industrial bodies and stakeholders in 2006. But no formal rules were formed to uphold and enforce the concept of net neutrality in reality. However, despite the lack of formal rules, ISPs in India mostly adhere to the principal of net neutrality.[8]

What is the state of net neutrality in U.S.A?

Net neutrality is not a new concept in the west; activists have been battling to achieve this for a long time. In 2010, Federal Communications’ Commission (FCC) had passed an order to prevent broadband ISPs from blocking or meddling with the traffic on the web, known as the ‘Open Internet Order’. This ensured that internet remained a level playing field for all. However, in 2014, the Court rules that the FCC lacked the authority to do so and enforce rules. This means, telecom companies who were earlier forced to follow the rules of 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. Recently, FCC has approved net neutrality rules that prevent internet providers 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.[9]

What is the difference in the position of India and U.S.A on the issue of net neutrality?

India is currently debating the merits of net neutrality. However, the Indian population’s access to and use of the internet provides unique parameters to this discussion.  For starters, although India has the third largest number of internet users, only 19 percent of the Indian population currently has Internet access.  In comparison, 87 percent of the U.S. population can access the internet.  On the losing end of India’s digital divide is India’s poor and often rural class, where internet access is limited, or if available, too expensive for marginal customers.  India also lacks the large scale infrastructure necessary for broad fixed-line Internet access.  For this reason, mobile platforms are the easiest way to make internet accessible to the population, particularly to the less affluent and rural areas of the country where residents suffer not only from poor broadband infrastructure, but also from the lack of basic access to the electricity needed to power fixed internet lines.[10]

The net neutrality debate got yet another blow in India with the announcements made by Reliance and Airtel. In India, Facebook has teamed up with Reliance Communications in an effort to bring Internet.org to smart phone as well as feature phone users.[11] In order to keep up with Reliance, Airtel has come up with a new marketing platform called Airtel Zero. Through this plan developers who sign up for Airtel Zero will pick up the data charges for parts or all elements of their application, hence making the data charges for the application free for consumers. And it has been reported that Flipkart has signed up for Airtel Zero, which means that users of Airtel’s network will get access to the Flipkart app without any data costs.[12]  But with the public opinion and criticism to such licensing agreement, Flipkart was forced to walk away from Airtel Zero.

To a large extent, India’s net neutrality debate is comparable with the recent debate in the United States, and Indian net neutrality proponents have adopted their U.S. counterparts’ arguments when criticizing zero-rating projects. However, the disparity between mobile and fixed-line internet access marks an important difference between the net neutrality debate in India and in the U.S.  Due to widespread internet access in the United States, the domestic net neutrality debate was able to focus largely on the quality of internet access.  But in India where internet access is beyond the reach of multitudes, the calculus may be very different.[13]

 

[1] “What is net neutrality and why is it important?”, Times of India, 20 Jan, 2014, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/tech/tech-news/What-is-net-neutrality-and-why-it-is-important/articleshow/29083935.cms (last visited on 17 Jan, 2016)

[2] Naina Khadekar, “What is net neutrality and why is it important in India”, available at http://tech.firstpost.com/news-analysis/what-is-net-neutrality-and-why-it-is-important-in-india-262120.html (last visited on 17 Jan, 2016)

[3] Supra note 1

[4] Dhruva Jaishankar, “Digital India vs. Net Neutrality”, Indian Express, 25 December, 2015, available at http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/digital-india-vs-net-neutrality/ (last visited on 17 Jan, 2016)

[5] Supra note 1

[6] Supra note 2

[7] Supra note 1

[8] Supra note 1

[9] Supra note 2

[10] Shruti Barker, “The Net Neutrality Debate in India”, The NAT Law Review, 5 May, 2015, available at http://www.natlawreview.com/article/net-neutrality-debate-india (last visited on 21 Jan 2016)

[11] Supra note 2

[12] Sahil Mohan Gupta, “Everything you need to know about Net Neutrality in India”, India Today, 13 April, 2015, available at http://indiatoday.intoday.in/technology/story/everything-you-need-to-know-about-net-neutrality-in-india/1/429887.html (last visited on 21 Jan 2016)

[13] Supra note 10

 

Picture Courtesy:
http://lisamccormick.org/mccormick-says-net-neutrality-is-an-enormous-victory/

FREE BASICS NOT SO FREE AFTER ALL

 

-The author is a practicing Advocate at Madras High Court

Free!!!” A word that garners instant recognition to any product it is associated with; that, along with the country’s favourite social networking site promoting it. Seems like an outright bonanza for any internet user doesn’t it? Sadly, like all things “free” there’s a catch. It’s not free after all!.

With newsfeeds flooding with notifications in support of free basics, one could hardly resist the temptation to go with the crowd at least until realising that an average minded internet user with half baked curiosity would pledge non-committal support to anything new that’s on social media. But facebook’s vehement campaign with billboards, first page newspaper ads and the like makes one wonder if there’s more to what meets the eye. And apart from getting people addicted to the internet free basics does very little to the proposed benefiters.

Freebasics an exaggerated version of the internet.org seeks to encourage subsidised data to those who cannot afford to access the internet. This they plan to do with the aid of mobile operators through smart phones. Emerging as the face of this so-called revolutionary concept, it free rides on the ignorance of the masses, the funds of the government and the costs borne by the mobile operators which no doubt would be reimbursed by the paying users. The actual benefiter being facebook, by providing passage to the web would get access to billions of people and their potential without investment, save the advertisement and campaign costs.

Free basics does exactly what a movie trailer does for you. The idea is to give the user a taste of the internet, just long enough for him to get dependent and then optimise the internet user to make him access the paid and premium parts. Surprisingly, facebook has not tried to hide this fact as it takes its place in the set of goals that freebasics and its content givers should aspire to attain. While Freebasics boasts of adfree services, it is highly unlikely that it would continue that way forever. However, being part of freebasics itself can be seen as a platform for advertisement and agreeably these bits of advertisements do contain some relevant data.

Facebook’s revenue model is based on monetising our personal data and selling them to advertisers. Facebook doesn’t pay a single paise as tax despite the revenue it generates from India. It refuses to be sued in India for violations on competition and advertisement laws that prohibits the use of generic words to brands and products. Only recently facebook was criticised for conducting a project without the consent of the participants as to see whether people’s views could be manipulated based on the content in their newsfeed and the results were positive. If so by being able to manoeuvre the views of the masses, in collaboration with certain elements, it could create a revolution, revolt, a change for the better or the worse. Such collaborations could be political, economic or social with the potential to create an economic crises, a political uprising or even a war. Much like how it tried to manipulate people into believing that free basics was free or the manipulated statistics it sent in support of free basics to the consultation paper floated by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

Not only that, facebook has been slammed for breaching consumer privacy while selling data. Facebooks license agreement would apply to free basics as well and any content uploaded as part of freebasics would need to pass through facebooks servers and it reserved the right to reject applications of the content producers who ultimately would be forced to comply with facebooks terms.

And yes facebook is ambitious, it has started 2016 with the bold claim that it intends to eradicate phone numbers and replace web browsing planning to be the centre of the world. “Internet” in the present day scenario is fundamental to the functioning of the world and spreading its tentacles to get its hold on almost everything. By promoting a concept that is the exact opposite of net neutrality that involves the principle that users must have access to all content without discrimination to the source and content of the data accessed, and breaching the competition laws of the country; it aspires to get hold of this indispensible necessity that will control the future.

The consultation paper that TRAI released had insightful views as to why discriminatory pricing policy even as an exception should be pro-competition, transparent, non discriminatory and non predatory. Had TRAI ruled against net neutrality, there would have been yet another demonstration to distribute smart phone and if it doesn’t accuse the government of wanting to keep its citizens in the dark by not providing them the right to information. Thankfully following suit from countries like Egypt and Brazil, the Telecom Regulatory Authority had ruled in favour of net neutrality, temporarily stalling facebook’s ambitious schemes.

Undeniably, India is paying higher prices for data than most other countries. There certainly are more cost-effective ways that India could opt for instead than to put itself at the mercy of a private company with its roots in a capitalistic economy. Mark Zuckerburg argued that internet to those below poverty is priceless, its high time one reminded him that for those below poverty food, clothing, medication, education and shelter are priceless.

If you don’t have bread, update status”

Being the facebook era Marie Antonette are we Mark Zuckerberg?

 

Picture Credits: http://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2015/12/10-facts-about-free-basics/