By Sania Siddiqui, Amity Law School, Jaipur.

What’s net neutrality?

It is the principle that all traffic on the Internet must be treated equally by Internet service providers. Net Neutrality is a terrible, technical sounding phrase, and suffers for the lack of an easy definition.

Until now, you and I could use the internet data we paid for, to do anything on the internet. If telephone companies get their way, they will dictate what, how and when to browse the internet. And this could happen very soon. This is really scary!

As you are reading this, mobile operators like Vodafone, Airtel Idea are trying to pressurise the Indian government to regulate certain Apps and services like Whatsapp, Youtube, Skype etc. This means that we will be charged separately for using them even if we have paid for the internet data packs

Why has there been so much of noise about net neutrality in recent months?

First, India’s top telecom company Bharti Airtel, towards the end of last year, decided to charge subscribers extra for use of apps such as Skype and Viber. These apps compete with the voice and messaging services of telecom providers, and are even cheaper. There was uproar, after which Airtel stayed its decision, saying it would wait for regulator Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services.

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Then, Facebook brought to India internet.org, a pre-selected bouquet of Web sites offered free to subscribers of Reliance Communications. There was not much controversy then.

The buzz became really big after TRAI put out a 118-page consultation paper asking the public for its opinion on 20 questions, most of them about how the Internet can be regulated. Views were also sought on net neutrality.

Over 4.2 lakh mails had been sent in support of net neutrality through the savetheinternet.in Web site. Political parties such as the Congress, political leaders such as Arvind Kejriwal and celebrities such as Shah Rukh Khan joined the bandwagon, as has the comedy group All India Bakchod through a video. All of them argue why the Internet should not be touched. TRAI will be open to taking comments till April 24, and counter comments by May 8. In between all this, Airtel few weeks ago launched Airtel Zero, which is a free offering of a slew of apps that sign up with the telecom provider. Flipkart pulled out of the platform after initially agreeing to be on it, saying it was committed to Net neutrality.

What happens when net neutrality gets violated:

  1. The Airtel-Flipkart fracas – In brief, Airtel promoted its Airtel Zero Platform scheme, under which certain apps would not have cost users any data charge (which means apps not on the platform are automatically being disfavoured). Flipkart supported it, and as a response their ratings on Android and iOS app stores were flamed to holy hell.
    2. Andhra Pradesh-based Bluwifi charged its users extra money for accessing P2P services – that is, our lifeline, the much-beloved torrents.
    3. Airtel wanted to charge additional money around Christmas 2014 for OTT services such as Viber and WhatsApp.

There are many other examples, but I hope you got the flavour of the problem: telecom service providers and internet service providers want to make (more) money off their internet services. Let me quote Rajat Mukarji of Idea Cellular:
“Riding for free on our network puts a certain amount of strain on our network. They’re reaching out to my customer with a capability which I couldn’t provide. But, don’t take my cake away from me. I have to survive as well.”

So let’s spell out the telco argument: “Customers pay once for our internet package. Then we want to charge them again depending on the kind of content they access. That’s because we have not yet “monetized” that, and because the service we themselves offer are being ignored because of the services that content makers (such as social networks, Google, Wiki, YouTube and so on) provide.”

Truth be told, net neutrality is not a principle of law right now. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and the Department of Telecom have been indicating for years now that they have indeed been thinking about this issue. Unfortunately, they seem to be taking the side of the service providers and not the janta of the country. Let’s think of it this way: telecom operators have two very powerful lobbies, namely COAI (for GSM operators) and AUSPI (for CDMA). Additionally, internet providers have IAMAI. They have been lobbying with the TRAI for bending the rules in their favour.

The American Federal Communications Commission had announced that internet service providers were henceforth to be classified as common carriers, and they had to ensure on pain of legal prosecution that there would be no:
1. No blocking: internet service providers cannot decide what I can access or not.
2. No throttling: my internet speed cannot be choked based on my consumption pattern
3. No paid prioritization: some websites cannot pay more money to get delivered faster to your device, or alternately, to choke down competitor websites.

Who benefits from net neutrality? How?

Every Internet user. Think through how you would like to browse the Internet. Wouldn’t you like to access the Web without worrying about how differently videos will be charged compared to other forms of content? Wouldn’t you like to access the Web without the telecom service provider getting to serve some sites faster than others? If yes for both, you are pro-Net neutrality.

New ventures benefit too. In fact, one of the key reasons for start-ups to have come up in a big way in recent decades is the openness of the Internet. The Internet has reduced transaction costs and levelled the playing field.

A start-up can come up with an app today, and can immediately attract a global audience. The likes of Googles and Facebooks could have struggled to grow if the Internet had not been open.

Then, why do we need to think about regulating the Internet?

Essentially because the telecom companies do not like the way the apps are riding on their networks for free. The companies complain that voice-calling and messaging apps are cannibalising their business. On top of all this, it is they who have to invest billions in getting access to spectrum and build networks as also adhere to regulations.

So, absence of net neutrality will benefit telecom companies?

It could make them a gatekeeper to a valuable resource, a role that supporters of Net neutrality feel will be misused to create winners and losers. They could charge companies a premium for access to users.

It would not be a telecom companies versus internet players issue, as could be mistakenly perceived. For, the absence of Net neutrality could also benefit established Internet companies who are flush with money. They could nip challengers in the bud with vastly higher payoffs to telecom companies.

Is this an issue in India alone?

No. The Federal Communications Commission just recently voted for what is seen as strong Net neutrality rules. This is to ensure Internet service providers neither block, throttle traffic nor give access priority for money. Europe is trying to correct a 2013 proposal for Net neutrality, in which privileged access was allowed to ‘specialised services.’ This was vague and threatened Net neutrality. Chile last year banned zero-rated schemes, those where access to social media is given free to telecom subscribers.

Suggestions as to what could be done to practice net neutrality in India:

Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) is the only body which has the power to settle this issue once and for all. If thousands sign the petition, we will make waves in social media and media. This will ensure that TRAI knows that there is growing public pressure on this issue. We will also reach out to TRAI directly.Together,  I am sure we can make TRAI come up with strict guidelines that are customer friendly and impose them on all mobile phone operators.The big companies say they have invested a lot of money in setting up internet infrastructure and they must get a share of the earning that Internet firms like Facebook, WhatsApp etc generate. But the truth is that all of these companies have a huge profit margin that customers like you and I pay for. They must not charge us more for increasing their profit margins.

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