The debate over net neutrality has maintained a steady momentum ever since Facebook announced its free basics/internet.org, ostensibly to allow the poor and marginalised to access certain websites for free. This curation of content has led to contentions that this is a threat to net neutrality, arguing that all users should have access to all websites and apps. In my time in rural India, I've developed an opinion about the issue too but it's not as black and white as some others see it.
The three types of rural internet users
To start with, I'll go back to the time when I was working at a village "knowledge centre", which was basically a dilapidated haveli with a few donated computers and an erratic, super-slow BSNL connection that was intended to be a gateway of the "marginalised" rural community to the outside world of information - the internet!
[T]here is an absolute lack of the kind of usable organised content that marginalised communities need.
One day, a student of mine approached me so for some help. He was connected to Facebook and wanted to know what "poking" meant. When I went over to help him out I realised that he'd been chatting with himself for the past week, thinking that his notes were going to a local college girl. Needless to say he was quite disappointed when I explained what had happened. His elder brother, who was trying to check his exam results online, smirked as this tale unfolded and joined the discussion. The older boy was an avid user of the internet, watching coding videos on YouTube, checking out e-governance sites and discussing with me what was missing, trying to find local content, starting from his own village on the map. Meanwhile, the teenage girl who had come in to dust the place did her work silently, with no idea of what we were talking about.
Point is, in that brief episode, there were three individuals, each of whom represented the three broad classes commonly found in "marginalised communities". The first group has made itself aware of the possibilities that internet technology brings and wants to make use of it - in most cases, hitting a wall due to lack of content/information. The second group has just about scratched the surface, still unaware of how to navigate through technology, and mostly attracted by what's promoted, what's aspirational and what's flashy and sexy. The third group is completely unaware about the internet and its possibilities.
Before we move forward, let's look back at the "knowledge centre" once more. When it was set up, it garnered attention of villagers, especially the kids, for a while. Thereafter, it has only been of use to some for accessing educational or government records and some training material. This doesn't mean that the internet is of no use to these people. It just means that there is an absolute lack of the kind of usable organised content that marginalised communities (which constitute the bigger chunk of the Indian population) need. It also means that communities, after the novelty has worn off, prefer functionally usable aspects of technology and steer away from the time-wasting parts in the longer term.
Millions of those in marginalised communities... are continuously being misdirected, misguided and misinformed via propagated media, as we speak - it's not new.
I will build on the above two points in a bit, but for now, let's look back at the three broad classes. We, GenX urbanites, have also been in all three classes. Prior to 90s, most of us had no clue about the internet. As we slowly started using it, we learned through our experiences, through our trials and tribulations with hacking and unexpectedly high bills and so on. Now, we are fairly confident about using the internet as responsible users and it's an integral part of our lifestyle.
The upside of curated content
I would like to draw attention to a brief period, before the internet really took off and before the penetration of smartphones, when Justdial was a success in many cities. This site was a handy way to access vendor listings for various services. It is worth noting that JustDial had the same discriminatory take on information as what we are voicing our opinion against nowadays - vendors who pay and advertise get included and suggested more. We didn't have a problem with JustDial, since the information was reliable. It was better than having no information at all.
Now going back to the class of users who are "completely unaware". Their present source of information is non-neutral - it comes from other people, TV or newspapers. In all cases, it is curated content. Of course, you can easily pick up another newspaper or change your TV channel. But what if your TV service provider does not include a particular channel, or a particular newspaper is not available in your location? You are stuck with non-neutral content that the media provider has deemed as "right" or "best". And this is the reality - millions of those in marginalised communities in the periphery of the growth economy are continuously being misdirected, misguided and misinformed via propagated media, as we speak - it's not new.
The introduction of a non-neutral internet service seems justified at a place where an open-internet solution is unviable.
Now, our urban progress had a few things in its favour. We also started with negligible content. Sitting in the 1990s few foresaw a time when all our metros would be well-mapped with information on every road, nook and corner. Yet, it happened - mostly because urban spaces are concentrations of individuals such that their cumulative purchasing power makes it sensible for organisations to invest in creating and organising content. It's a cycle - more users mean better content, which in turn leads to more users, which makes investment in higher and more consistent speeds worthwhile, which in turn leads to a better user experience, which means more users, and the chain continues.
It is here that our "elder brother" is stuck. He is one among the few individuals in a community who have adopted the technology. There are not enough like him to justify investment in local content development and organisation. Further, access to internet is so costly and erratic that adoption of the technology will also not proceed unless further infrastructure is made available. So in the near future, other than some government initiatives, his prospects of deriving the benefits of the internet like us urbanites, seem bleak. Now, that's a logjam, isn't it?
Now, if an enterprise puts forward an alternative business model, where it makes its foray into this infrastructural space, by financing it through revenue from those who provide information using the infrastructure, then that sounds like one possible solution to the logjam. The introduction of a non-neutral internet service seems justified at a place where an open-internet solution is unviable. In fact, this is necessary to remove the logjam to the point when the open-internet solution becomes viable. How will that happen? Through adoption. As we have learnt from our own experience, with more awareness, easier interface, more useful organised local content, our adoption and usage of internet services increase. This should increase the concentration of "net-savvy" individuals in one area so that infrastructural investment by other organisations becomes more viable, paving the way for an open-internet.
If exit and entry barriers are low, this form of internet shall pave the way for a viable market for open-internet.
This argument has some sweeping assumptions which I shall talk about in the next section - but let met sum up what we are looking at here.
In effect, information is already non-neutral for the majority of marginalised communities. The introduction of another medium poses no high additional risk (in fact, this is probably the only medium that also encourages two-way communication, further lowering risk of exploitation). Of course, there shall be initial difficulties and pitfalls, like the ones we have ourselves encountered. However, there will be adoption of the media, which shall make investment in local content viable, thereby organising and making available information that can initiate a cycle that will be a game-changer in the trajectory of rural development. If that doesn't happen, if the new media fails to bring forward usable content, then people will simply stop using it. We'll be back at square one, but none the worse for it.
While neutrality of the internet, and thereby, information, is definitely the best position, practicality and viability should take precedence in order to help remote communities to surmount a decades-old logjam.
The supplier side
The other strong argument put forward against non-neutrality is that it will not provide content providers a fair chance to compete, allowing a singular giant to determine if it wants a particular application on its platform, and to charge a prohibitive fee for the same. This is undeniable and shall happen. But it is to be noted, that all these "others" who will not have a fair chance under the giant's rule, don't have a chance anyway right now! At least not until a service provider viably provides internet access to remote areas - and without concentrated markets of local users this is unlikely for now. In this case, the "giant's rule" can indeed be a blessing, as it might create a market for other entities to join in. As I've illustrated before, adoption of internet services becomes a lifestyle over time, creating a demand for content and better services.
[A]ll these "others" who will not have a fair chance under the giant's rule, don't have a chance anyway right now!
Taking on monopoly
If exit and entry barriers are low, this form of internet shall pave the way for a viable market for open-internet. And that was where I had made a sweeping assumption in the previous segment - the question-- will barriers be low?
This is where the crux of the problem lies. When I posted my argument that "information is already non-neutral" to friends working in media and IT, they voiced a common concern: "But you don't realise how powerful a giant it will become, controlling the lives, opinions and aspirations of millions of unsuspecting Indians."
This kind of cleared the air that our fight for net-neutrality is not for neutral information (which, to me, is a myth anyway) but for protecting ourselves from big giants controlling our lives - making choices for us, not letting us see all choices available to us!
[O]ur fight for net-neutrality is not for neutral information (which, to me, is a myth anyway) but for protecting ourselves from big giants controlling our lives
So, what we need is not a strong anti-non-neutrality stance but a robust monitoring of monopolistic exploitation, which can range from regular tactics like cost investment in dedicated devices (like the Facebook SIM) and long-term contracts (remember Reliance's low-cost phones?) to highly deceptive strategies. In that sense, the movement against non-neutrality has indeed pressurised "giants" to relook at their strategies, which is a good thing.
However, we are focusing too much on non-discriminatory pricing of internet services, which might have only limited correlation with exploitation. Even without discriminatory pricing, exploitation is completely possible with the financial powers of industry giants (and we have definitely witnessed quite a few cases in recent history). Keeping viability in mind, and the prospects of transformation through connectivity, I believe it is the right time to make way for a free albeit discriminatory internet. At the same time, we must also shift our lens towards being watchdogs of the giants!
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