Net Neutrality – It’s about Right to Equality
The introduction of internet gave people a chance to access information and connect with other people around the globe. People can now share their ideas with ease to other people without even moving from their place. Internet in no time has become a predominant means of communication. Because the information available on such a platform varies from being informative to harmful as well it may lead to some serious consequences. Everything has its pros and cons and this inevitable phenomenon is no alien to Internet. Now as we know Internet has an unpredictable nature, so the government of various countries chooses to filter the content on the internet. But what if it comes to your notice that you are being charged on the nature of data used and not on the amount? Would you be furious or let it slide? Now I am questioning the readers regarding this particular subject as this is the big news not only in our country but, also around the world and you should be aware about it, because after all it’s about “equality” (obviously of a different platform). Yes, the government has a right to filter the content on the internet in order to avoid chaos and instability caused by derogatory content or lies spread on the internet, but do they have power to violate our rights in the name of good governance?
Many of us are unfamiliar with the concept of “Net Neutrality”. And to be honest until a few weeks back I was also ignorant and didn't know scrap about this concept. So, let us explore the different dimensions of this term and see how the network providers are slyly robbing us of our rights by elusory methods.
What is Net Neutrality?
I will try to not make it sound technical and give you a layman’s definition of “Net Neutrality”. The term simply means ‘internet equality’. This principle demands that every Internet service provider and the Governments should treat all data on the internet equally and there should be no discrimination i.e. charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application and what so ever.
This term was coined by Professor Tim Wu of Columbia University in the year 2003. “Professor Tim Wu was of the opinion that Public Information Network will only be useful when all the sites, platforms and content bets an equal treatment”.
Let’s understand this with an example : A network provider ‘X’ charges a sum of 250 ₹ and gives a total of 1 GB data with a validity of 28 days. Okay, now imagine that you can access every other webpage on the data limit provided but , you are denied access by the service provider to a particular webpage , let’s name it ‘Funbook’ and you are required to pay extra to access that webpage to your service provider. This is violation of ‘net neutrality’ because, this policy does not charge on the amount of data used but, rather on the basis of nature of data used. This is an arbitrary act by the Network providers which should not be promoted.
However one should not confuse ‘Net neutrality‘ with ‘Internet censorship‘ as the former refers to equality between the corporations and individuals in terms of access to the internet, while the latter signifies filtering of the content on the internet because of religious, moral, political or similar reasons.
How did ‘Net Neutrality’ debate get fuelled in India?
The major twist in the tale came in India when on March 27, 2015 TRAI published a 117 page document known as the “Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework” for over-the-top (OTT) service’s after a series of requests made by ISPs. TRAI sought public views on the paper and 24th April was the deadline for the same. Then introduction of Airtel Zero on April 6, 2015 attracted a nationwide criticism and this led to Flipkart withdrawing its participation in the Zero platform which was later followed by Cleartrip withdrawing its corporation with Internet.org. TRAI received more than nine lakh emails in support of net neutrality which is the largest it has ever received on any issue related to the telecom sector.
Did Indian Government’s whimsical approach lead to the present situation?
Indian government led by BJP in 2001 revolutionized the telecom industry in the country when it decided not to auction the spectrum but, designed a revenue share model. This led to competition and everyone knows that competition leads to productivity. But the UPA government in 2008 had other plans and they abandoned the successful revenue share model and introduced a first come first serve model. This led to the Telecom Companies to spend billions on the bribe money which ultimately were left them with no money to invest on the infrastructure. And this corruption in the sector is well evident to everyone after the 2G Scandal that uncovered in 2012 and in December 2014.
Should we pay for the laid back attitude of the Internet Service Providers?
With the rise in use of services like WhatsApp, Viber, Hike, Skype, etc. which are referred to as the OTT (Over-the-top) services, the use of conventional modes such as SMS and Voice calls have hit the dust. This led to uneasiness amongst the Internet Service Providers as it hampered their revenue. Their lack of innovation was not realised by them and instead of trying to fix the problem created solely by them, they added fuel to it. The ISPs started trying to convince TRAI seeking its recommendation and to step up for the regulation on the use of such services because long run monopoly of the ISPs had now hit a bump in the road. They tried to cover up their failure by way of differential charging.
As we are aware that internet belongs to everyone and it’s not a private asset of the ISPs, therefore, differential charging not only kills the essence of internet, but it also stirs up the question that why should netizens pay for the laid back attitude of the ISPs? They did not come up with new ideas and are now making a hue and cry when someone else used their brain to present the netizens with something which supports and promotes their interest. The ISPs started acting like victims who were wronged and robbed of their revenue by these OTT services.
‘Internet.org’ to ‘Airtel Zero’, wolves in a sheep’s skin
Everyone using internet must have come across the names of portals such as internet.org and Airtel Zero. Okay, if you do not know about them then understand that these two platforms are a cover under which the principles of net neutrality are violated in the name of providing the Indian population with faster services. Airtel and Reliance’s ‘Airtel Zero’ and ‘Internet.org’ respectively, have a number of applications enlisted under them where people can access those services for free but, the application developers have to pay a fee. People who know little about the concept of net neutrality came into support of such portals claiming that these platforms strive to provide the world population with internet access for free. But I beg to differ. These are just elusory methods by the ISPs and Corporations which violate the principle of net neutrality to an extreme level. How you may ask. This is an act of co-operation between the ISPs and the Corporations where the former provides access to the services for free but, the latter has to pay on behalf of people using it. Now people love free things and due to this human tendency the ISPs providing such facilities are given preference over the other. The power comes in the hand of these ISPs when other corporations also want to join in and be a part of it to increase their participation and economic value. Now, the ISPs get the most advantage here because they become the sole decider and can auction, bid or negotiate rates as they see fit. In India, Reliance and Airtel are setting up this trend and when they see fit they will obviously with no second thoughts set an auction on the traffic that they get. Internet is not some ISP or corporation’s private asset which they can sell according to their sweet will. It belongs to everyone.
Net Neutrality, Competition and Innovation is the road to emerging India
I am not against innovation but, what the bigger telecoms are doing in India is not an innovation rather it’s a guise used by them to earn big bucks. At present , India has less than 9 percent population having access to internet. The problem is not only with the telecom providers but, also with the Indian government. The Government wants every individual to have access to internet, but is it really possible when the bids in auctions are so high that the telecoms extract their investment made in buying the spectrum by charging people high rates of internet access.
From 1947 – 1990, the government was working under a planned economy and had complete control over private companies operations. Even the telecom sector was under the monopoly of the State and private investment was not allowed in this sector. It was in the year 2001 that the NDA government led by Mr Vajpayee announced the liberalisation of telecom sector and invited private investments on a revenue share basis. This led to investment of capital in infrastructure rather than in obtaining the license .Private Companies were now witnessed competing with BSNL and creating immense shareholder value. This competition led to productivity and as a result people had more choices and government collected more tax. It was a situation suitable to everyone’s interest.
But we all are aware of the scenario after spectrum auction policy introduced in 2008. It led to corruption and degradation of the most productive sector of the country. If India has to progress then the government will have to let go off it’s auction of spectrum model and replace it with the revenue share model or any other innovative policy which does not leads to selling of license. The whimsical policies should be abandoned and the ‘planned economy’ should again be brought into action.