Will Net Neutrality last long?
E-tailing is admittedly big business today. From hailing a taxi, to banking, ordering food and buying clothes, every activity is possible through mobile based apps. However it seems like the golden period of the internet is under a dark cloud and netizens understandably are a worried lot. They are on a war path following the stirring up of a hornet’s nest by the Internet Service Providers (ISP) and follow-up action by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the telecom regulator.
Currently, Net users, once they pay for their Internet access, enjoy free use of apps and unregulated Over-the-Top (OTT) services, apps such as Skype, Whatsapp and Facebook. They believe all information should be equal in the virtual domain. But some telecom networks, fearing losses due to free and frequent use of various applications and services, would like to treat different information, differently. Their idea is that heavy and higher priority sources using more bandwidth should pay more for using their services, like larger trucks end up paying higher toll at a toll booth as opposed to small cars.
In recent months, telecom operators have tried to lobby the government to regulate certain applications and services. Following the move by ISPs, TRAI has come out with a consultation paper ahead of formulating its guidelines on the subject matter. TRAI has sought public comment till April 24. It has also asked if telecom companies should be allowed to charge users extra fees for OTT services in addition to the fees they already pay for accessing the Internet. This move by telecom operators and TRAI has led consumers and Net users to believe that they would no longer have “Net Neutrality”. Consequently, TRAI has already received nearly one million petitions against any attempt to throttle the Net Neutrality concept.
Net Neutrality means that users are in control of where they go and what they do online. The founding principle of the Net is that ISPs should treat all lawful Internet content in a neutral manner and should not choose how data is used. Net Neutrality calls for equal treatment to be accorded to all Internet traffic, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. There would be no priority to any person, entity or company so that it is accessible to everyone at the same possible speed and cost.
Cable and phone firms contend that Internet companies like Google, AOL and MSN and a host of OTT value-added third party services are making hay at their cost using the networks built by them that provide people with access to their services. Hence, they want these Internet-based businesses to help pay the costs of setting up, maintaining and upgrading their networks. This despite the fact that most ISPs are making record profits.
However if new rules allowing these differential rates for differential OTT services are introduced, netizens fear that the increased cost would be indirectly passed on to them. Moreover, they would no longer have the choice to go wherever they want on the internet as their mobility would be effectively controlled by the service providers. Such new rules will hit digital start-ups particularly hard. These start-ups argue that taking away Net Neutrality would effectively tilt the balance in favour of bigger players with loads of cash in the bank and possibly suppress innovation, growth and success of start-ups with potential.
In India, telecom companies are already earning money by charging individuals and businesses monthly fees to use the Net and a separate data charge to access the internet on mobile phones. If this revenue is absolutely inadequate to cover the cost of running their networks, they may increase costs. As it is already, services provided by telecom operators are disingenuous. Some telcos seem to be throttling speeds as users end up experiencing deceleration in speeds from the middle of every
Debate on Net Neutrality is raging the world over. Law makers in Europe and other parts of the world are evaluating different kinds of regulatory frameworks. In the US, Net Neutrality rules adopted recently by the Federal Communications Commission prevent telcos from creating fast and slow lanes on the Internet.
Even as the debate over free and equal access to the Internet continues, the government has appointed a committee to look into the issue and submit its report in May. Telecom and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has assured that the government will address their apprehensions and work towards a non-discriminatory Net regime. He said, “We respect its (TRAI) advisory. We will take a call after we receive the committee report.”
However, netizens fear that intense lobbying by telecom operators may force TRAI to opt for a via media, a step that would still violate Net Neutrality.
Perhaps, the way out may be provided by four new global projects on the anvil that would revolutionise the information superhighway —Outernet, Google’s Project Loon, Facebook’s internet.org and Elon Musk run SpaceX’s fleet of satellites. Outernet is an interesting project that aims to provide free Internet connectivity even to remote areas from outer space—unrestricted, globally accessible, broadcast data and quality content from all over the Internet. The thinking behind the project is: If Internet access really is a human right, then blocking it would constitute a human rights violation. Similarly, Project Loon would see fleets of high-altitude balloons bouncing 3G signals from the stratosphere back down to the Earth’s most remote regions. On the other hand, internet.org envisions swarms of drones and LEO satellites performing the same function.
Though it may take time for these projects to become operational, the Internet is bound to become a global phenomenon beyond boundaries and restrictions. It would then become virtually difficult to regulate the Net and also the apps that ride on telecom networks.