Net neutrality means allowing the users equal ease in accessing all data available on the net and not restricting traffic to certain sites. Net neutrality can be violated by discriminating based on content, site, protocol, IP address, network etc. One example of a net neutrality violation is when Comcast, a US-based cable company, throttled traffic on peer-to-peer applications like uTorrent.
The TRAI, or the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of India, is thinking of allowing Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) like Reliance, Airtel, Vodafone etc to shape internet traffic and charge differentially, violating net neutrality principles. They are inviting in opinions till April 24, after which they will decide on the matter. Their 118-page-long consultation paper asks for answers to 20 essay-type questions.
Protesters of this TRAI proposal reacted by sending over 9 lakh emails to the TRAI, gathering 2 lakh supporters for a petition against this TRAI proposal, starting a public discourse around net neutrality and organizing protests in various cities. Corporations like Google and Flipkart have come out in support of net neutrality in India. The Telecom Minister said he supported ‘non-discriminatory’ access to the internet, but we never know what they mean by these phrases. Rahul Gandhi demanded a law to ensure net neutrality. Arvind Kejriwal and Naveen Patnaik, CMs of Delhi and Odisha, gave statements supporting net neutrality.
Some of the arguments against net neutrality are 1) TSPs cannot provide better services unless they are allowed to profit more, and it is within their rights to manage their traffic however they see fit. They paid the license for the spectrum from the government after all that makes it all happen. 2) For high speed internet, consumers have to pay more, why cannot the web services do the same for ‘fast lane’ privileges?
While talking about net neutrality, one has to keep in mind that net neutrality is not an end in itself, whether or not we support or reject net neutrality, we have to do it from a position that prioritize more public participation in creating and accessing internet services. Pure capitalist market logic won’t provide you with many logical counter-arguments to those of the TSPs. So we don’t howl with Google when it speaks about internet freedom being violated by the TSPs, knowing full well that Google, on its browser Chrome, privileges use of its search engine, slowing down other search engines. We don’t whine with Facebook in its appeals for ‘universal connectivity’ knowing very well how it provides more visibility to sponsored content all the time, privileging those who pay. We don’t give two hoots to what the defenders of monopolistic patent rights say about ‘stifling creativity’.
So now we get to the TSPs. TSPs not making enough money is tosh. The top ones are making plenty of bucks, and they want to get more money without investing more of their profits. So their scheme now is to further restrict internet access and usage to the public, throttling access to those online services that can’t or won’t pay extra or those the TSPs don’t like, which shouldn’t be allowed to happen. Many useful services can be ruined if the TSPs are allowed to mess with internet traffic as they please, the Comcast throttling of P2P is a case in point. As for the 2nd argument against net neutrality, it’s unfortunate enough that the richer enjoys better services in the consumer end, there is no need to bring more class inequality for web services.
While talking about net neutrality and rejecting the idea of differential pricing, what’s often brought up is the issue of internet.org. Internet.org is a partnership between Facebook and seven mobile phone companies like Samsung, Microsoft, Opera, Reliance etc that claims to aim at providing ‘affordable access’ to a handful of internet services. “Connectivity is a human right”, Zuck says, though while providing connectivity, internet.org differentiates between where the users would connect by allowing them to access certain sites without charging for their data usage, which means the consumer of that network, say Reliance, gets free facebook and some other sites without having to pay for the data they consume. This internet.org does not yet offer Google, or Naukri.com in India, so it has ruffled some monopoly feathers. Some of the start-ups are angry too because if more people flock to the unlimited usage sites, they may get beat in the price competition.
True that internet.org aims at Facebook and its fellow cronies, including some of the Telcos like Reliance, grabbing an even greater chunk of the internet market, and for that, they have started with out-pricing their competitors. It is also true that thanks to this many users will now have more access to certain websites, and more users of certain networks will be able to access those sites. As far as more accessibility to the public is concerned, the pro-internet.org argument does have merit as far as immediate impacts are concerned. But as it is with any sector, greater monopoly usually means in the long run the charges increase, and Reliance and others may not spare you there.
However, it is important that our debates, discussions and actions for more public participation in creating and accessing online content does not get locked in the agenda that the mainstream media and the corporate set for us – such as the one about internet.org. Instead of getting too tied up in internet.org – yes-or-no debates, how about we spend our time and energy organizing for free internet cafes in different parts of the country, including the ever-ignored rural parts? If we really think that ‘connectivity is a human right’, how about we stop depending on Facebook’s opportunism dressed up as benevolence and demand that right? Such a demand includes thwarting attempts by the Telcos to drive up internet costs, but it isn’t just limited to that. It demands a bigger vision of what could be than what the mainstream media with its limited talks allow you to visualize. Even when this TRAI proposal is history, it does not allow you to rest in peace. It calls for a constant state of rebellion against the exclusion and marginalization of people.