Daijiworld Media Network
Mar 13: 'Net neutrality' – many of us may be unaware what this phrase is all about. It is the most talked about issue especially in social media in the past few days along with Deepika Padukone's short film 'my choice' which has created ripples and has gone viral. May be net neutrality has not attracted the attention it deserves because it is not as interesting and appealing as 'my choice' is and also because we have failed to analyse the consequences if we fall short of protecting net neutrality which we have been enjoying now.
The issue of net neutrality is gaining momentum in India mainly because it has pitted Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) on one side and a new and aggressive breed of internet activists on the other. Internet activists have equated net neutrality to internet freedom. Buoyed by the success of section 66A of IT Act recently these activists have left no stone unturned to create public opinion against the move by TSPs to violate net neutrality.
It is ironic that after Uncle Sam (United States) it is India's turn to fight for net neutrality and scuttle the nefarious designs of telecom operators. In the US net neutrality has been an issue of contention from the 90's and on February 16, 2015 the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), a body similar to our TRAI) ruled in favour of net neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a common carrier.
Net Neutrality Explained
Now it is the turn of India to fight for net neutrality and we need to fight with our entire might if we have to retain net neutrality. In simple terms net neutrality means no discrimination of traffic flowing on the internet with respect to speed, access and price.
So far Indians have free access to internet and to browse the sites and access whatever information they require. It is necessary for people to have access to knowledge, information, services, free speech and freedom and ease of doing business online and naturally it requires neutral access. Net neutrality works on the principle that internet service providers and government should treat all legal data on the internet equally without giving undue advantage to anyone.
But all that might change if Telecom companies are allowed to have their way because they will have the final say to dictate terms to the end users as to how, when and what they should browse in the internet how fast you access and how much you pay to access content and services on the net. India has over 300 million internet users and it is imperative for our democracy to have free access to internet and the choice of services they want to access instead of giving a carte blanche for telecom operators to decide what information people can access and that too at a price.
So net neutrality entails that internet companies like Google, Twitter, YouTube don't require telecom-style licensing, no gateways censorship or selection, no speeding up of specific websites to give undue advantage and no zero rating or making some sites free over others by telecom companies.
On March 27, 2015 TRAI has put a consultation paper in public domain with 20 questions and wants the public to give their suggestions through email by 24th April, 2015. Due to persistent lobbying by telecom operators like Airtel, Vodafone, Idea, Uninor etc.
TRAI has been under pressure to allow them block apps and restrict websites according to their whims and fancies and extort money from consumers and businesses. This will be an extreme violation of net neutrality affecting our freedom to choose and also our privacy. That is why we need to fight for the continuation of the net neutrality. TRAI has sought public opinion on whether the hitherto unregulated internet over the top (OTT) services namely popular apps such as Skype, whatsapp , Facebook etc that ride on telecom networks need to be regulated.
What Telecom Operators Want
Telecom Service Providers (TSPs) in India like Airtel, Idea, Vodafone have attempted to slice the internet into service offerings which is nothing but a clear anti-net neutrality. In fact TSPs argue that OTT services like Skype, Viber and others are eating up their revenue. Instant messaging services like WhatsApp and Hike have already replaced the SMS for most TSPs cutting their revenue drastically. Some of the apps have millions of subscribers and command valuations of billions of dollars. OTTs like Skype and WhatsApp has come out with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) which has now gained popularity and that has given a big blow in terms of revenue from long distance calls to TSPs. There is a fear looming large for these TSPs that even phone calls may become outdated in the near future.
Therefore they demand that they should be allowed to charge OTTs on the ground that they make use of their networks for free of cost. Telecom companies argue that it is they who invest billions of dollars in terms of setting up infrastructure and also strictly adhere to regulatory scrutiny. While these companies are talking about revenue loss they are not talking about the benefit they get from the apps that ride on them – more apps means more data consumed and more money for TPSs.
In other words TSPs are demanding availability of more spectrum for data usage, rationalisation of taxes and levies in the sector, facilitating introduction of new and efficient technologies, implementing benefits of the status for the industry in parity with other infrastructure sectors in the country and exploring a revenue sharing arrangement between the OTTs and TSPs.
What it Means for Consumers
If the TSPs are allowed to violate net neutrality now enjoyed by the people it means they will be in a position to ensure some sites are served faster than others which also mean it will be costlier to use certain applications. Violating net neutrality will benefit the TSPs and would cause great harm by creating monopolistic tendencies. This will pave the way for telecom companies to charge differential rates for different internet services. For example if Airtel does not like YouTube and wants to promote its own video app Wynk, it wants the right to offer that for free while charging the consumer for accessing YouTube. So telecom companies can enter into a deal with OTTs and promote only their apps free while charging more for assessing other sites. This is a big hindrance for customers whose right to free access will be impinged if net neutrality is violated.
In fact the debate on net neutrality was sparked off after Airtel, the largest provider of mobile telephony in the country, announced that it would charge additional rates for VoIP from its network by using whatsapp and Skype in December 2014. Airtel's move came in for severe criticism for violating net neutrality, following which in late December Airtel announced that it would not implement the planned changes and would wait for the release of the consultation paper of TRAI before making any official changes. TRAI stated that though Airtel action was against net neutrality it was not illegal because India has no law enforcing net neutrality. The consultation paper of TRAI is a move to regulate OTT services to level the playing field.
There is a move by Reliance Communications and Bharti Airtel to tie up with several websites and application owners. It is said that Flipkart has already signed up with Bharti Airtel for their new platform called Airtel Zero which will lead to preferential access to the web or application of the provider and generate revenue. Such a tie up between telecom operators and application providers will bring additional revenue to telecom operators and that is why they are lobbying for anti-net neutrality.
Violation of net neutrality will not only affect consumers' access to internet but also adversely impact start-ups which largely depend on the internet to boost their presence. With limited financial resources, they will be unable to match the big names who can afford to pay the TSPs, which in turn will discourage entreprenuership.
What Consumers Can Do
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has put forward 20 questions on the licensing of internet services and non-discrimination of internet access through telecom operators. As a consumer what individuals can do is:
Write directly to TRAI at firstname.lastname@example.org by April 24, 2015, answering their questions and demanding net neutrality. Sign this petition on change.org to make sure that there is no discrimination in Internet usage. And in case you still haven't done either of these things, here's a 30-second method – click on savetheinternet.in and follow the simple two-step process.
Join the net neutrality activists in reminding TRAI that their job is to protect the rights of consumers, not the profit margins of telcom companies. Let's demand access to the free, open internet by protecting net neutrality.