The image of a muscular man with overflowing chest hair, which peaks through his loosely buttoned floral shirt, is a recurring Bollywood trope. This man, who exudes a menacing presence, is usually entrusted with the task of charging a weekly donation-which in street lingo is called, ‘hafta’. This goon is euphemistically referred to as bhai (brother), although technically he is no one’s brother or friend. Indian telecom companies are quite like the ruthless ‘tax’ collecting underboss in bollywood movies. They are perennial profit seekers who will do whatever it takes to fatten their bottom lines; even if it means price-gouging the average middle-class broadband user. A case in point is the tale of value-added services. About a decade ago, telecom companies launched Value Added Services (VAS) with a lot of fanfare. You could get santa-banta jokes, cricket score updates and your daily horoscope from Bejan Daruwalla, all by sending a SMS. Look around today, VAS are nowhere to be seen. That’s because by charging eighty per cent of the revenues telecom companies effectively killed VAS and drove startups in the VAS business out for good.
Now with news that a leading e-commerce company is going to tie up with a leading telecom company, concerns are growing exponentially about what this tie-up means for net neutrality. Before we address this we must elaborate on what net neutrality means and why it matters to every citizen on the internet. Net neutrality is the principle by which internet service providers cannot discriminate on the basis of origin or type of traffic when it comes to delivery to end-users who effectively pay for internet access. In other words, a service provider i.e. a telecom company cannot discriminate, in terms of price or speed, between traffic from website A and website B. This egalitarian stance is what makes the internet neutral and special. The initial effects of net-neutrality being damaged would perhaps be invisible to consumers. Slowly and surely the pernicious side effects will become visible: slow, loading pages; small start ups going out of business because they refuse to give the big telecom companies a cut; complex data plans which give consumers a collective headache. It’s all possible.
A common argument against net neutrality is that restricting how broadband providers run their networks — for example, by prohibiting them from charging certain content providers extra to put their content in “fast lanes” while everyone else’s content gets stuck in the slow lane — is that this kind of regulation will make it too difficult for network providers to recoup their investments in broadband infrastructure. This however is empirically an unsound argument. To cite an example, the leading telecom company, which is behind the anti-net neutrality push, has been earning consistent profits in the last fiscal year. It reported that it made a net profit of 14.37 billion rupees ($232 million) in the final three months of 2014, its financial third quarter. Given that the company is making such huge profits, why does it want more? The simple answer is greed. It is this greed on the part of telecoms companies which is threatening to kill the Internet’s democratic character.