← Back to Blogs

Net Neutrality: What it is + India's Picture

21st March 2014
Net Neutrality; Change; India;

I remember when the entire Internet used to be slow. Not just parts. Or at least it felt slow as its bits and bytes and packets tried to squeeze through a loudly beeping 2400 baud modem. When I got my first 56K modem it seemed lightning fast. I was so naive!
Then came DSL, which was faster still. Then broadband was everywhere. In cable lines. Even wireless. My phone could surf the Internet faster than my computer could just a few years earlier. We had instant gratification. Internet unlocked possibilities we could just barely imagine a generation ago.

Notice anything strange/creepy when you browsed today, something you were looking for the other day (a job, a product, a movie, a game), now showing up in advertisements. Personalization algorithms running on large unstructured data sets and churning out "you may also like" results, feeding you with what they want you to consume. We'd get notifications of things even before we thought to google them. It was content utopia. We had the whole world in our hands in our smart phones, tablets and geeky wearable tech

Most Internet providers have treated Internet traffic equally. Then these gatekeepers began setting up toll bridges on the information superhighway. Companies and large corporations could make their data flow faster just by paying a bit more and so they did. Atleast those who could afford it did. Everyone else was jammed in slow lanes. A few brave people cried foul. They pleaded for a return to "net neutrality" - a simple principle that says entrepreneur's fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student's blog shouldn't be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money. But in the days when climate change isn't being given enough attention by the people in power who cared about "net neutrality".

Then came the days where companies had enough competition and they need to spend more than their competitors to go even faster. They now had to choose between spending on content vs spending on speed. Most chose speed, after all who would want to see some innovative, artistic creation if it was frustratingly slow. That was the prevailing wisdom.

Online content became overrun with shallow clickbait, recycled memes, reruns, bots, and blatantly sponsored content. It wasn't worth much, but you could get it instantly. Meanwhile many creative and brilliant people didn't have much money. You can squeeze good content out of passion and time, but passion can't buy bandwidth. Still they coded and edited and uploaded in hopes they'd be seen.

The good content was still there, but you had to be very patient. You had to be willing to wait. You had to be the special type of person who craves truth and beauty over the obvious and common.

While there's talk of net neutrality while companies like AT&T are charging a privacy fee. Wireless carriers in India like Airtel plan to levy higher charges on VoIP services like Viber, Skype etc. fearing further reduction in regular telephonic calls and SMS volumes.

Airtel has further pleaded to TRAI to regulate OTT (over-the-top) apps. You can think of an over-the-top application as anything that disrupts traditional billing models - from telcos or cable/satellite companies. Examples include Hulu or Netflix for video (replacing your regular TV provider) or Skype (replacing your long distance provider). Think, for example, of the conflict between a company like Netflix and a cable company. Consumers still pay the cable company for access to the Internet, but they might get rid of their cable package in favor of the cheaper streaming video over the Internet. While the cable company wants to offer fast downloads, there is an inherent conflict of interest in not supporting a competitor, like Netflix, that bypasses cable's traditional distribution channel just as Whatsapp or Viber bypasses the telephone network to provide similar services over the Internet.

It's a disconcerting premise. We do not squander time on grief or doubt when we realize how dependent we are on internet today for various things from shopping to basic healthcare (exercise, home remedies), from entertainment and to knowledge, e-learning but worry about more higher level constructs like freedom of speech or internet censorship. Net Neutrality is a far more gruesome outcome above all others. In fact the internet was as critical as electricity and telephone service to the citizens and should be regulated like those utilities to protect consumers.

Net Neutrality in India
There are NO LAWS enforcing net neutrality in India. Although TRAI guidelines for the Unified Access Service license promotes net neutrality, it does not enforce it. The Information Technology Act, 2000 does not prohibit companies from throttling their services in accordance with their business interests. The issue of net neutrality hasn't seen much public debate in India till now, especially when compared with developed markets of say the US and Europe. "Let's be clear on this. What the company plans to do is certainly not in conformity with net neutrality. But one cannot today say the move is illegal as there's no policy either by the government that net neutrality is our principle or a regulatory framework put in place by the regulator," Rahul Khullar, chairman of TRAI says. There is a change.org petition open for Net Neutrality in India. Show your support to the cause by signing it.

Hope you've grasped the situation and why net neutrality matters to you. I strongly urge you readers to support this cause when you hear about it next time.

More articles on net neutrality
Watch the humorous and informative John Oliver talk about it in an episode of Last Week Tonight.

Comments (0)

Leave a Comment

* required