Let’s look in layman terms what the howl is all about –
What is net neutrality?
Firstly, we need to understand what exactly net neutrality is. Net neutrality means Internet that allows everyone to communicate freely. It means a service provider should allow access to all content and applications regardless of the source and no websites or pages should be blocked, as long as they aren’t illegal. That means companies like Airtel and Facebook's Internet.org should not block or slow down access to any website or content on the Web - for instance, to benefit their own services over those of competitors. It’s like a fixed-telephone line, which is equal to all, and no one gets to decide who you call or what you speak.
Another aspect of net neutrality is level playing field on the internet. This means, all websites can co-exist without hampering others. All websites are accessible at the same speed and no particular website of application is favoured. For instance – like electricity, common for all. Net neutrality also means all web sites and content creators are treated equal, and you don’t have to pay extra for faster Internet speed to a particular site/service.
Is Internet.org and Airtel Zero against Net neutrality? Or what is the problem with net neutrality supporters? Are they against free internet?
Free internet sounds tempting and may sound great on paper, experts say that in the long term it's against consumer interests, because consumers are more likely to use free services. Same is the case with the Internet.org, the freebies offered to users come at a cost. The idea behind this is cultivating a behavioral pattern, guiding and making us access us to the only sources which the so called "free-givers" allow us to and blinding us from all others. That is you are only getting free access to services/apps which have struck a deal with the telcos.
Airtel Zero like the Reliance-Facebook partnership on internet.org, too violates net neutrality which promises to provided a level playing field for all internet data.
App developers and services who are flush with funds, will not find it an issue to pay telcos for data charges incurred by users. But this can leave app developers, specially start ups, smaller companies, who cannot afford to subsidise consumer access to their websites and services, who cannot afford Airtel or Reliance’s data rates are likely to lose out, stifling innovation in the country, which means fewer options for consumers in the long run.
Read this in connection with Digital India
The word is that India has elected to power its more pro-technology government yet. During his address at the Digital India launch event, Prime Minister Modi elaborated on the need for the program to focus on innovation. The Prime Minister assured full support to young entrepreneurs who wished to launch Start-ups. He called upon the youth to innovate and said ‘Design in India’ is as important as ‘Make in India’. In the launch, the official policy on Internet of Things – pegged as the driver of Innovation for Digital India was also announced.
Yet, there is speculation of self-created hindrances to the government’s Digital India Vision. If media stories from the last fortnight are any indication, the so far unreleased report of the Department of Tele- communications on net neutrality is making a case for the licensing of voice over Internet Protocol Services such as Whatsapp and Skype. To license VoIPs at this stage would prove disastrous for India’s innovation ecosystem, and amount to pandering to the invalid argument of the Telco lobby which asks for a ‘level playing field’ between apples and oranges.
The concern with regard to cherry-picking VoIP applications for licensing is that it shall prevent future technologies and applications that could very well combine VoIP with other features in a truly transformative way for the citizen or consumer, from being developed. This is why, the need for a neutral Internet, without placing any licensing requirements on the Indian developers of the next WhatsApp or Viber or any other application that would use a VoIP feature is of imperative importance.
It would be naïve and impractical to license VoIP based applications, as in the times to come, some of the most useful and transforming technologies are very likely to use VoIP features in combination with regular messaging, content sharing or transaction features. Legitimate cyber security concerns can be dealt with by other far more efficient solutions.
This is why Net Neutrality is extremely important for small business owners, startups and entrepreneurs, who can simply launch their businesses online, advertise the products and sell them openly, without any discrimination. It is essential for innovation and creating job opportunities. Big companies like Google, Twitter and several others are born out of net neutrality. With increasing Internet penetration in India and given that we are becoming a breeding ground for startups and entrepreneurs, the lack of net neutrality should worry us greatly. Besides, it is very important for freedom of speech, so that one can voice their opinion without the fear of being blocked or banned.
The concept of net neutrality doesn’t exist legally. However, ISPs try to moderately not violate any laws. They’ve approached Trai for the losing revenues and are awaiting Trai’s decision on regulation IM app by OTT players. Most decisions here are made by DoT and Trai. However, it would be a good move to get things legally on paper, while Internet access in India is still at its infancy.
The government’s report on net neutrality shall be the first official marker on its Digital India position. I hope it will be reflective of the tremendous potential and creativity that can be unleashed by a successful Digital India and not a short sighted self-goal under the influence of a few Telcos.