Certain sections of the internet have been rocked with talk of ‘net neutrality’ recently. But what does it mean, and how is it important to you?
Certain sections of the internet have been rocked with talk of ‘net neutrality’ recently. Software developers are giving interviews about it, comedians are making videos about it, there’s an online petition circulating and Shah Rukh Khan recently tweeted in support of it. But what does it mean, and how is it important to you? Thehindu.com has compiled a list of FAQ’s on the topic, to get you up to speed.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the principle that all data on the internet is equal, and must be treated equally with no discrimination on the basis of content, user or design by governments and Internet Service Providers (ISP’s).
For example, the Dainik Jagran is a widely popular online newspaper, while the Hindi Milaap has comparatively fewer visitors to their website. Right now, if the Milaap wanted to boost their page views, they would have to write more engaging stories and find ways to share their content so that more people read it.
They are not allowed to make deals with ISP’s to charge customers less money if they visit the Milaap website. Net Neutrality means that Internet Service Providers should bill you on the amount of bandwidth you have consumed, and not on which website you visited.
Why has it become a current issue?
Towards the end of last year, one of India’s largest telecom companies, Bharti Airtel decided to charge subscribers extra for using certain apps like Skype and Viber. These apps compete with the core business of telecom providers (voice and messaging) that are much cheaper.
There was heavy protest from customers, so Airtel delayed its decision, and said it would wait for the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services.
Later in the year, Facebook brought to India internet.org, a pre-selected list of websites that are offered free to subscribers of Reliance Communications. There wasn’t much controversy at the time.
How are stakeholders responding now?
The discussion picked up when TRAI released its 118 page consultation paper on March 27th this year. The paper asked the public for its opinion on 20 questions about how to regulate the internet. Some of the questions were about Net Neutrality. By April 14th, more than 2.4 lakh mails supporting net neutrality had been sent to TRAI through the website savetheinternet.in.
Celebrities, politicians and comedians all commented on why net neutrality should be maintained. Amid the uproar, Airtel launched a new product on April 6th, Airtel Zero. The product comes with a bunch of apps that have made deals with the Telecom Company. On April 14th, Flipkart left the platform after initially agreeing to be on it, saying that it wanted to ensure net neutrality.
TRAI will be open for comments till April 24th, and counter comments till May 8th.
Who benefits from net neutrality? How?
Every internet user benefits from net neutrality. It enables a person to access whatever website they want based on their bandwidth payment, and not on the content of the website. You don’t have to pay ISP’s more to watch dog videos and less to watch cat videos, for example.
New companies also benefit. One of the main reasons for new innovations in the software industry is because of the open internet. The internet has lowered transaction costs and leveled the playing field between companies with big budgets and startups with better ideas.
Today, a startup can launch a great app and immediately draw a global following.
So why do we need to think about regulating the Internet?
Basically, because telecom companies don’t like the way apps are using telecom networks (for free) to take away core telecom business, like messaging and voice calling. Telecom companies have to invest billions to get spectrum and build cell phone towers, and some internet services directly threaten their profits.
If ISP’s start charging for specific apps, however, it would make them the gatekeepers of the internet; a role that can be easily misused. It wouldn’t just be an issue of telecom companies versus internet companies.
Absence of net neutrality would tilt the playing field against startups with better products in favor of established internet companies who can afford to pay lots of money to telecom providers to only carry their product.
Is this an issue only in India?
No. Net neutrality is a global issue. The Federal Communications Commission of the United States recently voted in favor of strong net neutrality rules, to ensure that ISP’s don’t give priority to companies in exchange for money. Last year, Chile banned zero-rated schemes (where bandwidth for certain websites is given free to telecom customers) and Europe is changing a 2013 proposal in which privileged access was allowed for ‘specialized services’, because it was too vague and directly threatened net neutrality.