Network Neutrality, or as it is popularly called “Net Neutrality”, is a concept which many tend to misunderstand. Often, we, in India especially, understand the concept in a very narrow term. The famous movement waged on Facebook for keeping the ‘Internet “free” and open for all’ although helped in highlighting the issue but left the definition and meaning of Net Neutrality open to diverse interpretations. Let us get into the nitty-gritty of net neutrality and certain current issues that every Internet consumer must be aware of.
The core principle of net neutrality is that all data on the Internet be given equal treatment. In theory, this implies that blocking or throttling of certain websites shall not be permitted. In an absolute sense, it seeks to establish Internet as a domain where all the websites irrespective of their content be given a similar treatment by both the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as well the governments. It is noteworthy that in many countries, preferential treatment (zero rating) is allowed, while in India there is a ban on such special arrangements.
For a layman’s understanding, it could be said that net neutrality as a concept imply that all data on the Internet be treated equally by both the ISPs and the governments irrespective of the content, user, platform, application, or device. It requires all ISPs to provide the same level of data access and speed to all traffic and that traffic to any particular service or website cannot be blocked or degraded. In addition, ISPs are not to create special arrangements with services or websites in which the companies providing them are given improved network access or speed. A special arrangement is a kind of an agreement between the ISPs and large corporations. In such arrangement, the former provides the latter preferential treatment and the latter provides the former a hefty sum of money. For instance, if an e commerce brand (say Ola) enters into a special arrangement with an ISP (say Airtel) then the former will provide the latter money in exchange of certain benefits. Naturally, this kind of an arrangement works against the principles of free and open competition as new players who may want to enter the market are disincentivised to do so as they cannot afford to pay for fast lane access.
A case in point where the concept of net neutrality brought big players at logger heads is the Facebook’s ‘Free Basics program’ launched in India in 2015. The program offered ‘free’ data connection to about thirty websites under the partnership with Reliance Communications. Facebook promoted the program as a proponent of net neutrality since under privileged and poor people in Indian would have free access to Internet rather than no access at all. However, critics complained to TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) saying the program was discriminatory as the data connection in question was to select content whether free or not. After reviewing benefits and risks of such program, TRAI finally passed a regulation prohibiting differential pricing on data connections sold (or offered at no ‘charge’) to consumers.
Thus, TRAI and other advocates of net neutrality take the stand that by not allowing ISPs to determine the speed (or other criteria) at which consumers can access specific websites or services, smaller companies will be more likely to enter the market and create new services. As a result, innovation and creativity will also be promoted. Thus, advocates of net neutrality claim that it is the very cornerstone of open Internet and must be preserved at any cost.
Critics of net neutrality on the other hand claim that by forcing the ISPs to treat all traffic equally the government will ultimately discourage investment in new infrastructure thereby creating a disincentive for ISPs to innovate. Moreover, the up-front costs associated with laying down optical fibre wires can be very expensive if ISPs will be restricted from entering into special arrangements, as they will not be able to recover the costs.
Absolute net neutrality may be possible in theory but not in practice. Practical experience shows that Internet is not a completely free and open domain. Governments all over the world apply certain filters to prevent access to certain websites. As a matter of fact, common public is aware only about a fraction of what the Internet is or what it is capable of doing. This is because all the traffic on Internet is not benevolent, there exists a plethora of malwares which necessitate a degree of restriction. Due to these malwares, which are a threat to critical infrastructure of countries and personal data of individual citizens, it becomes necessary to regulate the Internet. However, there is a fine line of distinction between regulating Internet and violating the core principles of net neutrality. While ensuring the former, it must be kept in mind that the latter is not violated.
Internet has proved to be a great equalizer in this otherwise unequal world. It has opened up new avenues of growth across the globe, especially the middle class. In 21st century, Internet continues to empower masses through providing equal access to the ocean of information, and this must not be compromised.
– Contributed by Suryansh
Picture: Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ program is a classic example of how the benefits and risks of net neutrality can be assessed differently by different parties.