This Article is From Apr 13, 2015

Don't Do Nothing. Take a Stand on Net Neutrality.

(T. Vishnu Vardhan is the Programme Director-Access to Knowledge at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India.)

Are you wondering what Net Neutrality is, and why the term has suddenly got so much attention in India among the Netizens? Do you need to be concerned about Net Neutrality? We will try to address these in this short post on Net Neutrality.

First things first. Net Neutrality (or Network Neutrality) is a globally-accepted principle of keeping the Internet freedom intact. Now you may wonder who is threatening Internet freedom, or how that is even possible. Well, it is.

By who? Your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Some also use the term MISP, which means Mobile Internet Service Provider. How can they do it? By simply not treating the data on the Internet equally. Let's make it even simpler with an example. Imagine your cable network provider promises you access to ATV, BTV, CTV and DTV (of course we know you get 300+ channels!) and takes a monthly subscription fee. Now you have a favourite show on DTV that you have been watching for a year. Suddenly your cable network provider comes to some business arrangement with ATV (let's call it sharing revenues!) and starts tweaking his signal. So your DTV signal becomes faint and you keep getting frozen frames and breaking sounds, whereas the audio video quality of ATV is superb. Not only that, your channel numbers are automatically reset, and the channel number on which you used to watch DTV now is configured to ATV.

The same thing, when it happens in the Internet context, is called breaking Net Neutrality. That is, the ISP starts discriminating which App you can use better, which sites will stream video faster, and so on and so forth. So by breaking Net Neutrality, the ISPs, by joining hands with some big companies (content providers) will build walled Internet gardens within which your experience of the world wide web will be limited. The <www> will no more be "world wide web" but will be "walled within my web"!

Is this bad? Well, most of the Internet fraternity that believes in the unending freedom the Internet provides thinks so. For budding App makers, e-biz players, etc. it is quite a jolt. A large corporate player like Facebook can easily team up with ISPs and rob the level playing field to all these budding players. Because the ISPs can potentially discriminate against the budding players or newcomers, there is a fair chance that you are curtailing innovation and new entrepreneurship on the Internet. Well "make in India" may still happen, but with limited large players who could potentially cannibalize the Internet!

If you are a simple consumer of the Internet and not bothered about the business dynamics, the violation of net neutrality will affect you too. Definitely not in terms of increased Internet data pack prices. In fact, there is a fair chance that you will be given freebies like "Buy this Internet Data Pack and you will get 3 months free of Facebook usage". However, in the bargain, over the long run, we all will lose out on something precious that money cannot always buy, something that is considered inherent to the Internet ... the FREEDOM to choose and the FREEDOM to express.

Let's look at the other side of the coin. Why is it that the ISPs want to do this? They have realized that some data providers (those who build Apps, websites, etc.) are making quite a big buck and they want a share of that profit, because they need to meet their large infrastructural costs that they have incurred in setting up towers, cables, etc. They are bleeding, they say, and need to find sustainable business models. They do not want to burden the consumer by increasing the data charges and this is an ingenious way of making their business sustainable. Win-win scenario, only at the cost of Freedom. To hell with Freedom, we give you Internet for FREE!

To deal with this issue effectively, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has put out a consultation paper called Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services for feedback from stakeholders. It's available here. If you use the Internet in India (either on mobile or on a system) then you too are a stakeholder. We hope that this post will help you to participate in the consultation process.

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