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Net Neutrality: The global debate for an open internet that works for a new Digital India

Here’s why net neutrality matters to connect a billion unconnected to the internet.

net neutrality

Highlights

  • Internet service providers have been trying to curb access to data hogging services such as streaming

  • Net neutrality is a principle that advocates a free and fair internet

  • Free in this case means freedom to choose and browse what you want

Net neutrality has been one of the hottest, most sensitive topics debated online over the past couple of years. The entire buzz around net neutrality began, when well, internet penetration went beyond laptops and computers. This was part and parcel of the rise of smartphones and tablets.

To begin with, net neutrality has always been a battle between those who believe in an ‘open internet’ and those who are out to make a profit from online services. Unlike five years ago, the internet today isn’t restricted to accessing websites and email. It’s gone on to become our primary source of entertainment. Today, we can listen to music, play games, watch videos, movies and TV shows across different content service providers.

The internet, for consumers and ISPs

So far the internet seems promising for consumers. But some ISPs (internet service providers) have felt the need to throttle internet speeds for certain websites. The result is slower speeds, despite having access to high bandwidth. The cusp of the two interests is what gave birth to the principle of net neutrality. Let’s take a deep dive to know more.

The tenets of net neutrality

‘All data is created equal’ and ISPs shouldn’t discriminate against or charge separately for the type of data that is being transmitted – this is the basic principle of net neutrality. Neutrality advocates believe the company that connects you to the internet, shouldn’t get control over what you do on the web. I know a lot of you might be confused with the definition, so let me explain it.

Say, your internet service provider is offering you a plan with 30GB bandwidth for a month, at speeds of up to 20Mbps. Now, the speed is decent enough to download 1GB file in under 10 minutes, or watch a full HD video without buffering. But, often times, you may notice that downloading a file isn’t an issue, but when it comes to streaming even a 720p video, you see buffering at times.

It could also be the fact that full HD (1080p) videos on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video run smoothly without buffering, but a YouTube or Daily Motion video would stutter due to buffering. This is because your internet service provider throttles speed on the specific websites you’re trying to access. The principle of net neutrality believes that ISPs must be restrained from giving preferential treatment to certain services or sites.

Net neutrality in India

India has had its fair share of controversy around Facebook’s internet.org, and Airtel Zero, which promised internet access at a minimal price, if not free. Obviously, it came at a price. In case you missed the buzz around the two offerings, we’d come to it in a bit. But to cut a long story short, TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) issued recommendations in favor of net neutrality. and even the netizens supported the #SaveTheInterent campaign, because of which Facebook had to kill its free internet initiative.

Facebook Internet.org and Airtel Zero controversy

If you remember the early internet days (somewhere around the year 2008 with GPRS connectivity), Orange (now Vodafone) offered Orange Live platform whereas Airtel offered Airtel Live. Basically, these portals were free of charge, and only offered users to purchase and download mobile games, wallpapers, ringtones, videos and more. It was fine in those days where mobile phones and networks weren’t powerful enough, and internet was just penetrating. But, with the current smartphone era, the market seems to have changed. And so have consumer preferences. Video streaming is a clear favorite.

Why did Internet.org and Airtel Zero irk so many?

In a bid to offer affordable internet to the users, Facebook started its internet.org initiative with access to select internet services. Airtel Zero also had a similar model. At a glance, it seemed good for users as they didn’t have to pay for data plans to use the internet. They could simply head over to their web browsers and surf the websites. But there was a catch.

Facebook’s business model was simple. The service provider had to register with the social network for internet.org, and users could then access these services using Free Basics app. Some of the accessible websites include – ask.com, AccuWeather, Bing search, dictionary.com, ESPN, wikiHow, Wikipedia, and of course, Facebook. Does any of these sites excite you? Sure, some of these websites may help you look for information, but it does not solve the bigger problem.

Airtel Zero was also based on similar lines where the telecom operator offered its users with free access to certain mobile apps and services even when users had zero balance. Again, the ability to access internet with zero balance is a good thing (via WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger), especially in situations where you want to urgently communicate with someone, without having to head to a store to recharge your account. However, not all services were included in free plan, which basically violated the basic principles of net neutrality.

Net Neutrality: A key for success of Digital India

PM Narendra Modi introduced the Digital India initiative, and after demonetization, it has become more important than ever. Today, we have all the information accessible on the internet. Be it your Aadhaar details, driving license and RC book, and more. There are mobile wallets like Paytm, Freecharge and Mobikwik among others, and solutions like Samsung Pay that allow you to make cashless payments for a number of things, right from utility bill payments to mobile recharge, pay hotel bills, pay for your cab rides or even pay at toll booths.

UPI (Unified Payments Interface) and Aadhaar pay are other payment alternatives that have been introduced to enable cashless transactions. But there is one major thing that is required here – internet. To be able to transfer money via these cashless modes, you need internet access. And what is the use of having free internet, when you cannot use services like Google Search, Paytm wallet or UPI-enabled BHIM? If we want Digital India to succeed, net neutrality is a must, and it is good to see TRAI taking the required initiatives to make this happen.

In the US, FCC has killed Net Neutrality, which will allow ISPs to prioritize data from one service provider over other. While that is bad for open internet supporters, it is good that TRAI’s stance on net neutrality in India is clear – that internet services should be non-discriminatory.

  • Published Date: December 18, 2017 12:25 PM IST