Net Neutrality or the principle of ‘open internet’ protects our right to communicate online freely by ensuring that all internet service providers supply open networks and do not block or discriminate against any applications or content. These include discrimination by protocol, IP address and favouring private networks.
The term Net Neutrality’ was coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003 and Chile became the first country in the world to pass net neutrality legislation in 2010, by adopting laws that prohibit organisations such as Facebook and Wikipedia from subsidising mobile data usage of consumers. In 2015, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) too ruled in favour of net neutrality by reclassifying broadband access as a telecommunications service. It is believed that Mexico has adopted one of the strictest net neutrality frameworks in the world.
In India, the debate over net neutrality sparked in April 2015, when TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) sought recommendations on its consultation paper, which impeached the principles of net neutrality. The paper saw thousands of web users taking to social media to show their displeasure.
TRAI issued another consultation paper on differential pricing for data services. This was seen as a major improvement over previous consultation paper. However, the debate between telecom regulator and OTT players refuse to die down.
Telecom companies, who own the infrastructure through which data packets passes inter alia argue that they should have a right to control this data flow and the ‘freedom’ to charge accordingly (to ensure that certain data gets priority over another or that certain data is not carried at all, etc.).
Their argument is that since telecom companies spend large amounts of money building the infrastructure (laying the tubes through which data packets pass), they should have a say over what content travels over or through it and of course make more money from it. Network neutrality is the principle according to which internet traffic shall be treated equally, without discrimination, restriction or interference regardless of its sender, recipient, type or content, so that Internet users’ freedom of choice is not restricted to particular content, services, applications or devices.
Telecom regulators are of the view that OTT players like WhatsApp, We Chat etc. are eating up the main revenue without investing in networks; OTT players, on the other hand, defend themselves by demanding access to web services without any discrimination.
Internet Service Providers (ISPS) can create slow as well as fast internet lanes, which mean all websites cannot be accessed at the same speed and one can do so only on paying an additional sum. ISPs can also charge extra for the free calls you make using services like WhatsApp, Skype and others and eventually the load of additional payable sum by the Over-The-Top (OTT) players will be pushed onto consumers.
Net neutrality is extremely important for small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs, who can simply launch their businesses online, advertise their products and sell them openly, without any discrimination.
It is essential for innovation and creating job opportunities. Big companies like Google, Twitter and several others are born out of net neutrality. With increasing internet penetration in India and given that we are becoming a breeding ground for startups and entrepreneurs, the lack of net neutrality should worry us greatly. Besides, it is very important for freedom of speech, so that one can voice their opinion without the fear of being blocked or banned.
In India, there is no law that mandates the maintenance of a neutral internet. There have already been a few violations of het neutrality principles by some Indian service providers. On 10th February, 2015, Facebook launched Internet.org in India with Reliance Communications. It aims to provide free access to 38 websites through an app. Only Bing was made available as the search engine. In April 2015, Airtel announced the ‘Airtel provides the apps for free to its customers. The reports of Flipkart, an e-commerce firm, joining the ‘Airtel Zero’ scheme drew negative response.
Keeping consumer’s interest in mind, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has now released its final report, recommending facilitation for affordable, good quality and universal broadband. The DoT panel also suggested that net neutrality is vital for good internet experience and that the core principles of net neutrality must be adhered to. More significantly, it also addressed the question of Over the Top (OTT) services like WhatsApp, Viber and Skype, by stating that OTT services dealing with messaging should not be interfered with through regulatory instruments, as they have been traditionally available in the market for some time and such services enhance consumer welfare.
TRAI took a revolutionary decision, prohibiting telecom service providers from levying discriminatory rates for data, thus ruling in favour of net neutrality in India. This move was welcomed not just by millions of Indians but also by various political parties, business persons, industry leaders and everyone using the internet.
The Internet, in its purest form, is a veritable fountain of information. At its core lies a commitment to both openness and a level playing field, where an ability to innovate is perennially maintained. Therefore, the public demand is to neutralise the net in India as it is done in other countries. This enables equal access to the internet and greater penetration of information across the globe. This will strengthen the net consumers and reduce the exceptional profits made by telecom giants.
Internet is inherently neutral (more or less). The father of the World Wide Web (www), Tim Berners Lee himself revealed that it was designed as neutral medium. He further emphasised that there should be no censorship and the state should not restrict any legal content by the citizens.
One of the main reasons the Internet has been so successful is that people have generally been able to use it how they wish. The worst thing policy makers could do to the network would be to allow telecom companies to change that.