-- Scott Cook (co-founder of Intuit and director t e-bay and Procter and Gamble)
"The internet could be a very positive step towards education, organization and participation in a meaningful society."
--Noam Chomsky (writer and activist)
"The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow."
-- Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft)
"When the Internet first came into public use, it was hailed as a liberation from conformity, a floating world ruled by passion, creativity, innovation and freedom of information. When it was hijacked first by advertising and then by commerce, it seemed like it had been fully co-opted and brought into line with human greed and ambition."
-- Neil Strauss (author and journalist)
These four nuggets of wisdom sum up the journey of the Internet from its inception till date, when all over the world it is under the attack of vested interests. India is no exception. As a netizen and Internet activist, I oppose any attempt to circumvent net neutrality. In fact, mine was one among the million e-mails sent to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in support of net neutrality. The issue was also recently brought up in Parliament by Rahul Gandhi in opposition to TRAI's proposal to regulate certain applications and services. If implemented, such regulations will curb net neutrality in favour of corporate interests.
In this blog, I hope to establish why defending net neutrality is a must.
What is net neutrality?
Put very simply, net neutrality is a principle that ordains that Internet providers give all content and applications the same access without favouring particular apps or websites. India has more than 300 million Internet users that are now more than the number of users in the United States. Of those, about two thirds will access the Internet through their mobile phones. The Internet phenomenon is not only restricted to urban centres but is also growing in rural India at a phenomenal rate of 39% (outstripping the urban growth rate of 29%.
"Ultimately, the less fortunate will be forced off the Internet. It's an echo of what happens in the real-world setting, where the less fortunate are denied a proper place in our societies and cities."
Thus it comes as no surprise that there is huge opposition to TRAI's proposal to allow the country's telecom-cum-internet providers to charge differently for different uses of data. This means charging certain rates for email or Internet browsing, and even more for use of applications like WhatsApp, Viber and Skype, whose popularity has changed the rules of the game for traditional telecom and Internet companies.
Why the internet must stay "neutral"
The Internet is the future, and as Bill Gates implied in the quote above, it has taken the form of a global community with people across the world -- rich or poor, privileged or underprivileged -- having equal and unfettered access to an incredibly rich repository of knowledge and services. The very idea of segregating the Internet based on a person's paying capacity violates the ethos of equity and access that has made the Internet into the global community that it is today.
Imagine an Internet of the future in which websites are divided by a hierarchy - the better sites will be accessible at a faster speed only to a premium-paying elite. Those who are unable to pay this premium will have access only to a bunch of redundant and slow websites. Ultimately, the less fortunate will be forced off the Internet. It's an echo of what happens in the real-world setting, where the less fortunate are denied a proper place in our societies and cities. And now some are proposing that they be denied a place on the Internet too.
Myths about differentiated services
In order to be fair, we must examine the arguments that are presented in favour of imposing differentiated services.
1. Voice, Video, text and browsing are different services hence need to be charged differently.
This to me is a complete fallacy as there's nothing special or different between a byte of video, a byte of audio and a byte of text going through any network. They're all the same, and they all go through at the same speed. Charging for the amount of bandwidth that is consumed on a network is acceptable and is the case for most providers today. Interestingly, the two platforms which are proposing differentiated pricing in India -- Airtel Zero and Facebook's Internet.org, which has partnered with Reliance -- claim to be bandwidth providers. But bandwidth is what we use while texting, talking or browsing so where does the question come of charging differently for these services?
"Zero-rating plans are like double pricing... the argument falls flat as all users do pay for bandwidth even today and no access is really free."
2. Zero-rating platforms like Airtel Zero and internet.org will help bring the Internet to millions of Indians who are not on the Internet (separate charges for sites, services and speed will make it possible to sustain free users)
On the surface, how nice. But let's dig a bit deeper. Zero-rating plans are like double pricing. Firstly I get charged for the bandwidth I use and on top of that I must pay for some combination of site, service and speed. The argument falls flat as all users do pay for bandwidth even today and no access is really free. All users do pay for bandwidth to access the internet. From these payments alone, both Airtel and Facebook posted profits worth billions of dollars, but I guess that is not enough and there is an urgent need to double charge some customers to keep providing what these companies already do to all users in the guise of "free" services or sites.
Secondly, the argument of zero rating is self-contradictory, as a differentiated Internet will most impact those who are underprivileged. They will be the ones who will be deprived of the immense benefits of Google, they will be the ones who not be able to connect with friends over Facebook, they will be the ones who will not be able to chat with friends over Skype and they will be the people who will never be able to watch an instructional video over YouTube.
Instead of cordoning off the Internet, companies need to adapt to the new reality and focus on improving their bottom lines by truly attempting to bring more people online instead of subtly pushing people out. Bandwidth prices are falling the world over and it might just be a good idea to reduce prices, improve services and ensure more connectivity as a billion eager customers are waiting in India alone.
Many of us grew up searching for assignment answers on Google, playing games online, developing crushes while chatting and discovering the joys of Skyping with family even while being a world away. I wish the same for all future generations to come and that is possible only when we have an open and equally accessible Internet for all.