Net Neutrality: Prospects and Impacts
By Fahmida Ozair, CEO, SoftAge
Internet has become the source of massive information, both reliable and unreliable. The community connected to the internet turns into the web domain for every single updates around the world, news and information related to health, politics, business, science and so on. Now, imagine the source of data being controlled by a lobby and access to information becoming a whim of a handful of corporations. Such a situation would be bizarre in a backdrop where internet is believed to be democratic. However, the scenario is technically possible, internet being a product of technology itself. Herein emerge the recent buzz about ‘Net Neutrality’, emanating to be a burning topic of current times.
The web domain can be accessed only via Internet Service Providers. The structure is developed such that, the spectrum allotted for data transactions should be bought from authorities controlled by government of any country. It is noteworthy that ‘Spectrum’ is natural and it is free. The situation here can be compared to people paying for drinking water, which is abundant in nature and costless. Net Neutrality became an issue when in late 20s some private entities begun to roll out strategies that went against access to free data in internet. Comcast, in 2007, intentionally slowed peer-to-peer communication.
The debate on Net neutrality has been going on at the global level for a long time, but it reached India, officially, when TRAI released a draft consultation paper seeking views from the industry and the public on the need for regulations for over-the-top (OTT) players. Zero rating seems harmless at first glance, as all things “free” often do, but will cause lasting damage to innovation, competition and freedom. Internet giants like Facebook, Google, Twitter and Wikipedia exist today because an open and neutral Internet did too. Having become successful, it would be a pity if they now decide to ally with telecom giants and seek to change the rules of the game for everyone else, where smaller firms will be forced to commercially lobby and sign up in order to prevent their competitors from being able to deal in and crush them.
The Federal Communications Commission just recently voted for what is seen as strong Net neutrality rules, to ensure Internet service providers neither block, throttle traffic nor give access priority for money. Europe is trying to correct a 2013 proposal for Net neutrality, in which privileged access was allowed to ‘specialized services.’ This was vague and threatened Net neutrality. Chile last year banned zero-rated schemes, those where access to social media is given free to telecom subscribers.
In Indian context, Net Neutrality is crucial. And, in the recent drive of Prime Minister Modi for Digital India, the issue is heating up across the country. The sequence of events such as Supreme Court verdict over Section 66A of IT act, the recent “Airtel Zero” platform and Facebook’s internet.org have made Net Neutrality a burning issue. Internet to become entirely global should have a link to local and when we talk of digital inclusion, it must be available to the underprivileged and on the margins. The problem with internet.org is that we are replacing “internet” by “Facebook”. Let us be very sure that these two cannot and should not be equated. As I said earlier, as all free things seem good at first, it might seem like zero tariff plans will complement the digital India campaign, but in reality, it will simply take away our freedom of choice.
From a democratic point of view, an open internet is central to India’s diversified populace. Specially, in a digital India, voices of deprived communities and groups are essential for inclusive development. Digital platforms will grow to be crucial tools for citizens’ empowerment, only if the government is in favor of an open web sphere. DoT, in the meantime have assured a reliable web infrastructure to the nation. Internet connectively is considered a subjective facet of development in the new formation of Indian infrastructure. With this, ensuring a neutral internet is not only an obligation of the government but also a necessity.
A neutral internet is essential for new entrepreneurship and growth of small enterprises. Internet has been crucial for innovation. Violating net neutrality will reduce entrepreneurship and local Internet innovation by placing firms in a situation where their local consumers are all locked in to a limited platform under the control of a few giants. New ventures benefit from open internet. In fact, one of the key reasons for start-ups to have come up in a big way in recent decades is the openness of the Internet. The Internet has reduced transaction costs and leveled the playing field. Neither Internet.org, Airtel Zero nor any other major zero rating platforms give the choice to consumer. The complicacy with Airtel Zero is that, large enterprises and corporate giants will be leveraged with more space with their strong buying power, while new startups will be pestered with a requirement either of additional investment or to surrender the endeavor. Thus, it violets the right to free access to the web sphere. A start-up can come up with an app today, and can immediately attract a global audience.
The likes of Google’s and Facebook’s could have struggled to grow if the Internet had not been open. It is now a liability of these giants to provide the same to other startups and to make the internet domain as liberal as possible. An ongoing Net Neutrality will make internet dependable, performing as it is now, and any glitches in the idea could prove to be degrading to the internet community itself.