Understanding Net Neutrality
Before you take a position for or against ‘Net Neutrality’, let’s try and understand, in simple terms, what the fuss is all about. As an analogy, let’s take a look at a premium shopping mall located in an area where people have no other option but to go to there to buy daily essentials. The mall has some very premium restaurants that offer great food, good service, along with a lot of customer pampering. Since they are fine-dining restaurants, the price of food is expensive and therefore, only a few can afford it.
Now the mall owner’s position on this is that people have a choice; they can either visit the mall, pay a premium and avail the best food in town, or simply go elsewhere. The problem is that there is no other place close by where people can go. The restaurant owners say that they would like to offer food at a lower price but can’t help since the mall owner is charging premium rent from them.
Now, imagine the mall owner as the Internet Service Provider (ISP), the restaurant owners are the various website-based service and information providers, and the customers are everyday people like you and me.
The ISP says that he has the right to provide premium service i.e. data access at selective speeds to higher paying websites, who can in turn, charge a higher premium from the customers, if they so wish. The problem is that the ISPs want to (and has the ability to) increase or throttle the speed or completely deny access to the website owners. That is where the debate starts.
While the analogy above may not reflect the complexity of the problem in its entirety, it does give the ordinary man a basic understanding of it.
The internet has now become a global medium where no can lay claim to any form of ownership or control on who can access information and at what speed. Yes, not even the ISPs.
However, the leading ISPs or telecommunication service providers like AT&T, IBM, Verizon, CISCO, Intel and Qualcomm – companies that spurred their revenue growth because of the internet that was paid for by ordinary people, companies and governments – all feel threatened and vehemently oppose the concept of net neutrality.
The Concept of Net Neutrality
It was way back in 2003, when a media law professor from Columbia University in the US, Tim Wu, first wrote of the need for a common principle wherein all ISPs and governments view all data traffic on the internet equally and without discrimination and without differential charging based on content, user, platform, application, site, mode of communication or the type of equipment attached.
Ever since, the debate on whether the internet traffic should be completely free and available to all or whether the ISPs could charge a premium for providing faster speeds and better data access experience has been raging.
The Raging Debate
India may still be low on broadband penetration, but it is rapidly growing in terms of mobile users, and by extension, internet users. Soon, India is likely to emerge as the one of the top three markets for internet users and therefore, India’s opinion on net neutrality counts.
The debate has naturally sparked off heated opinions with over 600,000 petitioning the TRAI in support of net neutrality.
Specious Argument Against Net Neutrality
As in any debate, it’s important to hear the other side of the story before drawing any conclusion. The ISPs have been defending the preferential pricing mechanism based on control of speed and service quality and putting forth an argument that they have spent billions to set up telecommunications network like state-of-the-art fibre optic cables. According to them, unless they can recover those costs through premium pricing based on premium levels of service, they will be unable to recover the massive investment made.
Furthermore, they argue that if net neutrality is enforced, then future investments in telecommunications infrastructure will be curtailed, thereby impacting user experience. Well, they do have a point. Telecommunications infrastructure is indeed expensive and there has to be means to recover the cost, either from website owners or people directly, but someone has to pay. It’s time the IBMs, the AT&Ts and the CISCOs revisited their business models and their business ethics and read the pulse of the people. The people who made them the corporate giants are the ones who can bring them down.
While net neutrality is imperative for us to access freely and fairly any information or service through the internet, what is needed is a fresh look at the commercial mechanism to ensure revenues can be raised without differential treatment towards data access.
AT&T had put on hold its plan to rollout of its fibre optic network until FCC came out with clear guidelines. That’s exactly the point. Can the end user be held hostage to an ISP’s commercial claim? Don’t we, the end consumer, have the right to free information, without the ISP playing gatekeeper and controlling who gets to access information and how?
The Political Headwinds
As usual, our political powers remained silent while the debate has been raging and watched which way the wind was blowing. It is only recently that it has come out in muted voice favouring net neutrality.
Leading corporates have begun to take a stand in favour of net neutrality with Flipkart pulling out of Airtel Zero, a net neutrality violating service.
NDTV, along with Cleartrip, Newshunt and the Times Group, has all decided to pull out of internet.org, a Facebook initiative with Reliance Communications, further reinforcing their commitment to net neutrality.
In a recent statement, Rahul Khullar of TRAI, bemoaned the fact that the debate on net neutrality had become muddled with a corporate house and a telecom company taking opposing positions. In India, the debate is very much alive and open.
It’s time the government took a clear and unambiguous stand on net neutrality so that our own homegrown ISPs don’t remain without clear guidelines for too long.
If you are for internet access without discrimination, then the time to raise your voice is now. The government is listening.
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