Net Neutrality: Why we must preserve the openness of the Internet

By Rishab Bailey, Research Analyst, ThoughtWorks

Network neutrality is the principle that requires all data traveling over the Internet to be treated equitably. It prevents Internet providers from speeding up or slowing down content based on its source, ownership, or destination.

The point of it all: Preserving the Openness of the Internet
Our public Internet is built on a framework where users pay a subscription fee to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for the freedom to traverse the length and breadth of the Internet. Users do not have to pay more for accessing one website in preference to another. All content is equally accessible.

The aforementioned framework is one of the major reasons that the Internet can rightfully claim itself to be an instrument of democratization. Its ability to let anyone publish or view content is unmatched. The available content diversity is essential in making the Internet what it is today.

An environment where Net Neutrality is not protected will see the user without the freedom to ‘roam’ the entire Internet. As is the case with Cable TV providers, ISPs will become gateways who will decide what content you can view.

Plurality of Services
A failure to protect principles of Net Neutrality in the Internet space will allow big content providers to enter into agreements with ISPs to ensure that their content is provided to you at a preference. This will adversely affect online diversity and reduce the choices available to you as a consumer – particularly in so far as small content providers are concerned.

The Internet economy is highly prone to monopolization (due amongst other things to network and bundling effects). Failure to put in place a regulatory regime that preserves a fair and free market will ensure that innovation is restricted and negatively affect public good.

Think of it this way, would Gmail have emerged as the force to reckon with if Hotmail had been permitted to pay your ISPs to ensure all new email services were slowed down? Would people use Youtube if they had the option of no data caps for content viewed on a competitor video site such as Vimeo?

Security and Privacy Risks
Failure to protect the principles of Network Neutrality is likely to lead to an increasing centralization of services, which can be a security hazard.  The implementation of traffic management practices by ISPs could architect the gross
violations of user privacy. In order to differentiate between data packets, ISPs often use the practice known as Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). According to Angela Daly in ‘The Legality of Deep Packet Inspection’, “….the use of DPI generates privacy concerns, as data about a users’ behavior on the Internet (which will often include sensitive data) is monitored and used for various purposes, such as traffic management or advertising.”

It all comes down to a viewpoint
Is the internet Internet to be viewed as a public utility, much like electricity or as a club good similar to cable television?
Given the innumerable benefits of the Internet towards development, promoting social and economic justice, enabling unmatched information’s unbiased dispersal and transparency the case in favor of the Internet being treated like a public utility is quite strong. Add to this, the plans for multi-channel delivery of Indian eGovernment services, it could be argued that access to the Internet is essential to exercise ones full citizenship rights in the 21 st century.

The ‘devolving’ scenario
Telecom companies, who own the infrastructure through which data packets (content) pass believe that they have the right to regulate this data flow and the freedom to charge accordingly.

This has quite naturally lead to numerous telecom companies entering into deals with content providers to ensure for instance that certain content is provided to users in priority to other content. For example, in violation of net neutrality principles, Airtel customers will be charged more for VoIP calls.

Another instance of breach that’s hot in the media now, is to do with Airtel Zero. According to dailyo.in, “The plan, as Airtel explains, is to allow app developers and web service providers to pay money to the telecom giant so that their services and apps can be extended to consumers for free. This means Flipkart, which is supposedly a part of Airtel Zero, can be accessed by Airtel subscribers for free and they would not have to pay for data charges.”

You can imagine what this means for Flipkart’s competitors. They will stand to loose traffic from all customers who access the Internet using Airtel.

Are we getting back on track
Despite the several infractions of the net neutrality principle, we have no specific regulatory regime in India requiring the maintenance of a level playing field in the online space.  The conversation now is being driven by various telecom companies and ISPs who have intensified the pressure on TRAI to ensure that applications such as Skype, WhatsApp and
Viber (communication applications who provide free SMS or VoIP services) share part of their revenue with the telecom companies.

The telecom companies point to how communication applications run on their services and at the same time cannibalize their sources of revenue (i.e. voice calls and sms). Of course, this tends to ignore the other side of the argument that
while the telecom companies might lose out on voice and sms revenue to such applications, they have massive earnings coming in through increased data usage.

In any case, such proposals will facilitate only big players to continue in the market as the fee to telecom companies could cripple startups and smaller businesses in the VoIP or web messenger market. In any case, such proposals will facilitate only big players to continue in the market as the fee to telecom companies could cripple startups and smaller businesses in the VoIP or web messenger market.

TRAI has now proposed proposal is to put in place a licensing regime for such communication applications and services. This move is most likely to have adverse consequences for the Internet environment in India. It will inhibit innovation, cultivate unnecessary barriers for entry to the online market and reduce the number of applications and
services available to users.

To protect the Internet and all that it stands for and aspires to be, it will become imperative for India to take a leaf out of the book of countries such as the Chile, Brazil and the Netherlands who have all implemented strong consumer facing legislations in support of net neutrality. Ensuring a level playing field in the online market is essential if our society is to fully reap the benefits of digitizing our economies.

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