08/05/2015 8:08 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

A Neutral Look At Net Neutrality

Michael Bocchieri via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 10: Network cables are plugged in a server room on November 10, 2014 in New York City. U.S. President Barack Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to implement a strict policy of net neutrality and to oppose content providers in restricting bandwidth to customers. (Photo by Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)

More than one million people have opposed the consultation on net neutrality by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), but the matter is far from over. As with most debates in India, it has become a battleground between vested interests and activist propaganda. In the ensuing noise and misinformation, the interests of 300 million internet users and those 900 million people deprived of it become secondary.

Let's therefore look at net neutrality from the internet user's point of view and not that from the point of the interested parties - telecom service providers on one hand, and application service providers on the other.

The following questions may help you to form a considered opinion on net neutrality.

1. Would we want to have, on the same network, two classes of internet applications and services - ones that load faster and perform better and others that do not?

• Presumably, your answer is a "No". You are probably aware that internet application providers invest heavily in boosting performance of their applications on the internet by various means including caching, peering directly with internet service providers, etc.

• However, here the question is about price discrimination - whether an internet application provider who pays a special price to a telecom service provider should get a faster lane on the internet. Your answer will probably always remain a "No".

2. Is having free internet sponsored by a few applications interesting enough to make us opt for a free internet plan? Popular examples are Facebook's and Airtel's zero plans.

• Does a "free" internet plan make much sense without the internet applications you most use? If you feel it does not make much sense, then "free" internet plans subsidised by internet application providers should probably be left to the demand-supply dynamics between internet application providers and telecom service providers.

• Or will a "free" internet plan eventually lead you to use applications only available in that subscription plan? If you feel this way, "free" internet plans can potentially hurt innovation by stifling start ups and new products that want to reach you on the internet.

3. Have we begun to expect the same standards of performance from internet applications as we do from telecom companies?

• For example, is the Skype call or WhatsApp message as important as any other voice call you make or any SMS you send? If that is the case, should internet messaging and calling services come under the same Quality of Service standards as basic telecom services? This relates to TRAI's mandate since it is the country's telecom regulatory body.

• For non-communication but performance critical applications such as payments or video, should Quality of Service standards be the same as "managed services"? Managed services are non-internet (private) networks where very high service levels are assured.

4. Do we need the same customer service standards from internet applications as we do from telecom companies?

• Do you expect a taxi-hailing or e-commerce application to provide you with a high level of customer care? If yes, would you want them to be regulated?

• Or do you think that this should be left to demand-supply market dynamics where consumers stop using services that do not provide satisfactory customer care.

5. Do we need to be aware of how internet applications store and use our private data?

• How much of your personal data, messages, etc are managed by internet application providers? If there is any violation of your privacy or use of your private data, how empowered do you feel to take action within the legal jurisdiction of India?

• Based on how you feel about this, there may or may not be a case mandating internet application providers to manage your data within the jurisdiction of India.

6. Since the internet infrastructure is developed, maintained and used by private companies, do we want a share of the payments we make to them fund investments in internet infrastructure so that more and more people can take benefit of it?

• While you may be among the 300 million people in our country who can access the internet, there are 900 million others who cannot. Telecom service providers pay a percentage of their revenue towards the Universal Service Obligation Fund. Should internet application providers also pay this Universal Access Levy?

• Since most internet application providers do not make any revenue or make very little revenue compared to investments they get, should the Universal Access Levy be on the net worth (loosely, investments + revenues + assets) of internet application providers?

After you have read through this article, do not be surprised if your views on the points above are neither all nor none in favour of the net neutrality debate. The important thing is that you form an opinion based on all the issue and facts at hand.

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