“Freedom of connection with any application to any party is the fundamental social basis of the internet.” -Tim Berners-Lee
“There is no free expression when you have to pay extra to stand on the soap box.” —-Thor Benson
For the past one month there has been a wide ranging debate especially in the social media circles on the issue of net neutrality in India and the alleged attempts by telecom companies to violate the principle of net neutrality. Since this is a relatively new dimension of the rights of citizens which is primarily related to technological aspects and the internet, it is important to disseminate more information regarding this in the public domain, with special emphasis on the issue of safeguarding Net neutrality. Let us find out more.
What is Net Neutrality?
The term was coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003, as an extension of the longstanding concept of a common carrier. According to this concept, all internet data traffic should be treated as equal without any discrimination, in terms of charges and speed.
It means that the Internet Service Providers or ISPs can neither charge extra for one website or App, or provide other at no cost, nor throttle speed of any.
Why is it important?
Let us imagine a situation in which you bought a meal for say four hundred rupees, which usually provides you unlimited food, or lets say as much as you can eat.
But suddenly you are told in the middle of your meal that you would have to pay extra for the cold drinks and dessert. The situation here is quite similar. Until now you would pay for an internet data pack and you could browse whichever website you like. Without net neutrality, ISPs would be able to devise new schemes to charge you more for access and services, making it harder for you to communicate online. The Internet could come to resemble cable TV, where gatekeepers exert control over where you go and what you see.
In such a scenario, ISPs would be able to block content and speech they don’t like, reject apps that compete with their own offerings, and prioritize Web traffic (reserving the fastest loading speeds for the highest bidders and sticking everyone else with the slowest).
What happened in India?
The problem began when Indian telecom players like Airtel and Reliance realized that users were replacing SMS with WhatsApp, Line, WeChat etc. and traditional calling with apps such as Skype and Viber.
They now want the right to charge what they want, when they want and how they want. For example if Airtel doesn’t like YouTube, and wants to promote its own video app Wynk, it wants the right to offer that for free, while charging you a bomb to access YouTube.
Airtel has also launched its scheme called Airtel Zero whereby it is offering some Services like Flipkart for free, thus in principle violating Net Neutrality.
Reliance already has a Facebook-driven scheme called Internet.org, where you can access Bing for free, but you have to pay to access Google; and you have access to BabaJob for free, while you have to pay for Naukri.com.
What violators have to say?
Airtel CEO Gopal Mittal, defending his Airtel Zero platform, said: “Over the last few days you may have seen a lot of conversation on our toll free platform Airtel Zero. It has been painted as a move that violates net neutrality and we have been very concerned at the incorrect information that has been carried by some quarters in the media as well as in social media. I wanted to take this opportunity to clear the air and reiterate that we are completely committed to net neutrality.”
“Our vision is to have every Indian on the internet. There are millions of Indians who think that the internet is expensive and do not know what it can do for them. We believe that every Indian has the right to be on the internet. We know that if we allow them to experience the joys of the internet they will join the digital revolution.”
“Airtel Zero is a technology platform that connects application providers to their customers for free. The platform allows any content or application provider to enroll on it so that their customers can visit these sites for free. Instead of charging customers we charge the providers who choose to get on to the platform.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg, on his Internet.org program said: “For people who are not on the internet though, having some connectivity and some ability to share is always much better than having no ability to connect and share at all. That’s why programs like Internet.org are important and can co-exist with net neutrality regulations.”
What GOI is saying?
Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said: “Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is undertaking a consultation on the issue of Net neutrality. TRAI being an advisory body, their advice is certainly entitled to our respect, which I am awaiting,”
Prasad further said: “Way back in January itself, I have also constituted a committee headed by senior government officials of the Telecom Ministry to give me a report on the whole gamut of net neutrality objective, its benefits, advantages and limitations including the regulatory and technical issues. I have asked them to give me a report by the second week of May after the widest consultation possible including online to help government come to an informed decision on this issue. Since I am awaiting these reports, it will not be proper for me to make any comment.”
Telecom regulator TRAI Chief Rahul Khullar said: “there was a need for a democratic debate on net neutrality, especially against the backdrop of a big corporate war between a media house and a telecom operator.”
In March 2015, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a formal consultation paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services, like WhatsApp, Skype etc., seeking comments from the public. The consultation paper was criticized for being one sided and having confusing statements. It received condemnation from various politicians and Indian internet users. By 18 April 2015, over 800,000 emails had been sent to TRAI demanding net neutrality in India.
What has been achieved till now?
Till now a major chunk of media houses and organizations have come out openly in support of net neutrality. Flipkart, after initially joining Airtel Zero, pulled out from it after facing public backlash and have issued the following statement:
“We at Flipkart have always strongly believed in the concept of net neutrality, for we exist because of the Internet. Over the past few days, there has been a great amount of debate, both internally and externally, on the topic of zero rating, and we have a deeper understanding of the implications. Based on this, we have decided on the following:
We will be walking away from the ongoing discussions with Airtel for their platform Airtel Zero.
We will be committing ourselves to the larger cause of Net Neutrality in India. We will be internally discussing over the next few days, the details of actions we will take to support the cause.
We will be working towards ensuring that the spirit of net neutrality is upheld and applied equally to all companies in India irrespective of the size or the service being offered and there is absolutely no discrimination whatsoever.”
The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI), which has firms like Google, Facebook, Snapdeal, Ola, MakeMyTrip and Saavn as its members, slammed TRAI and its paper. “It looks like TRAI in its consultation paper has copy-pasted from submissions of ISPs” IMAI President Subho Ray said.
Ray further said: “the paper makes an assumption that Internet doesn’t come under any regulations, which is incorrect. All Internet companies are regulated by Information Technology Act (2000).”
ClearTrip, which was one of the partners in Facebook’s Internet.org, withdrew from the initiative after the whole debate on Net Neutrality started. They issued this statement: “The recent debate around Net Neutrality gave us pause to rethink our approach to Internet.org and the idea of large corporations getting involved with picking and choosing who gets access to what and how fast. What started off with providing a simple search service has us now concerned with influencing customer decision- making by forcing options against them, something that is against our core DNA”.
The attempts made by the telecom companies in violating the concepts of net neutrality is actually an attempt by them in maximizing profits. The arguments made by them that it intends to have everyone on the internet does not hold much ground, because what they attempt to do would actually make internet access more expensive.
The response by various citizens’ initiative has been quite heartening and it has forced a number of companies and media houses to pull out of this initiative by the telecom companies. However, it remains to be seen if the Government of India would be able to take this issue towards its fruitful conclusion and safeguard the rights of the Indian citizens towards equal access of the internet.
Photo courtesey- Rafiq Phillips