Net Neutrality: Curating the Internet

Published: September 16, 2015 - 17:12 Updated: September 17, 2015 - 13:26

By showcasing stories on the diverse uses of the Internet, Hardnews and the Internet Democracy Project explain how an illiberal Internet will affect your lives

Abeer Kapoor Delhi 

If the Internet no longer stays neutral, we will live in a very different world. The word Internet activists use is ‘walled garden’ – this refers to select content being available on the basis of what is provided or bought through tariff plans. This is a violation of the very design of the Internet which was created to treat all content equally. In the past year, the issue of net neutrality has become a highly debated topic and has engendered Internet activism.

 Even as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) are engaged in a series of discussions on net neutrality, it is clear that the future of the Internet hangs in the balance. Recently, both bodies affirmed their faith in net neutrality but there is a big difference between what is preached and what is practised.

Facebook, through, has been criticised for its deals with big telecommunications companies. This has been called unethical, because similar practices led to Facebook overtaking Orkut, hi5 and several other social networking sites in the past.

The image projected by the BJP-led NDA government is that it has embraced the digital world. In July, the government unveiled its hopes for a Digital India and on Independence Day Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a plan to allow easier financing for startups in India. While Modi’s plan focuses on manufacturing and other forms of businesses, the reality is that the dominant platform for business is the Internet. A ‘New Economy’ is what Richard Posner, a noted legal academic, calls it.

 Between August 13 and 20, the government’s Committee on Net Neutrality asked the Indian public for feedback on the issue and 73,000 Indians left comments on a government portal. A majority demanded an open and free Internet  and stressed the need to maintain its  sanctity in the wake of a call for the country to “Start up and Stand up”.

 The net neutrality debate has many components to it and it is a battle to be fought on many fronts. What sparked off the debate in India was an initiative by Airtel, called ‘Airtel Zero’. This initiative falls under the larger ambit of what is called zero-rating packages. When telecom services providers like, say, Reliance, tie up with big, application-level players like, say, Facebook, to offer free access to their customers – and charge for access from applications that they don’t have an agreement with –  it would mean that consumers will use only Facebook rather than any of its competitors like Orkut. That’s because consumers would have to pay extra to use Orkut on their phones and they would baulk at the idea. In this scenario, the data charges that Reliance would have got from customers will now be paid for by Facebook. In exchange, Facebook gets all of Reliance’s customers to use its application. Competitors of Facebook will be left in the lurch, because they would likely not have the kind of resources required to get into agreements with companies like Reliance.

Imagine that the Internet is a highway and what you pay to access it is akin to the toll you pay to use a highway. Would it not be unfair if people who owned a certain brand of car were exempt from paying this toll, while every other person with a different brand of car had to pay it?

Even though the government has committed to broadly maintain the principle of net neutrality and has reaffirmed its stand on preventing discriminatory practices, there is no law in India on neutrality. This allows largescale misuse of the Internet, most notably, recently, by Google.

Internationally, one of the core principles of the Internet has been to prevent discriminatory practices. Anti-trust laws and their maintenance are important for neutrality. Big companies would like to limit the discussion on neutrality to access, but the most important part of neutrality is that all data should be available to all. The dominant discourse on the future of the Internet comes from western information and communications technology companies, and will suit the needs of the global north.

For example, technological giant Google recently came under the scanner of the Competition Commission of India (CCI), a quasi-judicial body. The allegation against the company is that it took advantage of its position as the dominant market leader and used its algorithm to further its importance, at the cost of other companies. Google’s stated position in the debate on net neutrality has been a red herring. In an email between Google and the Internet and Mobile Association of India, leaked by Medianama, it appears that behind closed doors the company is not in favour of net neutrality.

Requiring applications to be licensed and regulated would be antithetical to innovation. It is based on the premise that applications can neatly be divided into those that offer communication and those that don’t. However, a wide range of applications servicing non-communication needs requires interactions with consumers. Disallowing net neutrality will come in the way of innovation, which is currently one of the core advantages of the Internet.

In addition, there is the preliminary allowance for deep packet inspections, through which Internet Service Providers will be able to prioritise content as it passes through their tunnels. For example, if you want to click a photograph of your child’s first words and want to put it up online or send it to your friends, it will load slower, because through this deep packet inspection it could well be considered low-priority. This prioritisation of information can deem as inferior some kinds of data. It could be anything – a musician’s song, a learning website for a teacher or even a news article.

Many don’t understand what it would mean if the Internet does not remain what it is. So we bring you stories from the world of culture, news and innovation to make this struggle more relatable.

Hardnews, in collaboration with the Internet Democracy Project, has curated two stories on the varied use of the Internet and how, if it changes, and neutrality is determined by the telecommunication companies, users will be adversely and hugely affected. By showcasing two diverse uses of the Internet, we show you how an illiberal Internet will affect your lives.

By showcasing stories on the diverse uses of the Internet, Hardnews and the Internet Democracy Project explain how an illiberal Internet will affect your lives
Abeer Kapoor Delhi 

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This story is from print issue of HardNews