Net neutrality has to be fiercely protected

Yet, there are fundamentally disturbing questions brought about by the emerging Internet of Things that the proponents of net neutrality will have to tackle sooner than later

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | May 6, 2015


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The heart of the net neutrality debate in India is centred on three fundamental questions. First, is internet a public good? In theory, at least, it is. The Narendra Modi government seems to think so too. The entire plan for the ambitious Digital India initiative is built on the premise of providing all Indians access to internet, the underlying principle of any definition of public good. Second, is internet a private enterprise? It definitely is. More or less everything from the codes and servers powering it to the fibre optic cables crisscrossing the oceans has substantial participation of the corporate sector, consortiums and telecommunications majors. Third, is internet a hybrid beast, having both public and private DNA? It is. If policy, law, regulation, spectrum allocation and incubation funds are largely the distinct preserve of the public domain then electronic commerce, search engines, digital music stores and cab applications are the specific entities of the marketplace. Now, grounded somewhere in between are an emerging portfolio of services and transactional systems that are neither strictly private nor public: a typical case in point is the Aadhaar-authenticated digital financial systems and solutions.

Net neutrality has to be grounded within this unique ability of the internet to have multiple avatars. The basic principle of net neutrality is non-discrimination. In short, every single piece of content, whether it is a piece of code installing a cookie in your computer or a full movie file, will have an equal chance of travelling in the internet pipes. It’s best to understand it with a real world analogy. If the internet pipes, which is mainly the fibre optic cable network and cell phone transmission towers, are its highways and roads, then the pieces of content – from websites to applications – are its vehicles. A customer pays the internet service provider (ISP), like how you pay a toll booth, to access the pipe. Using this pipe the customer can choose to drive or ride in any vehicle: think of the unique resource locator (URL) or the specific application that you use as a choice of vehicle. The fact that no one really owns the internet, despite several players and actors actively contributing to it has had something to do with this kind of arrangement. 

When the telecommunication majors got on to the data bandwagon, through smartphones and data packs, it became a consistent and growing revenue stream. They tried their own way of going beyond the click through advertising revenue model employed by web companies, by bringing in what was called the gated internet enclave (or a walled garden approach). In this approach web companies would deploy WAP sites and telecom companies would enter into a revenue sharing, or a direct placement deal, with such companies. The WAP sites would be placed within an enclosure (garden) that could be accessed by a single button. Despite the gated access to the WAP sites the end consumer paid the data charges. In all this the main principle of net neutrality of non-discrimination still held, though there could be some who might argue quite forcefully that it was bent.

What has changed this time around with the Airtel and Flipkart deal, and Facebook’s Internet.org project, was that that Flipkart and the sites and applications populating the Internet.org universe agreed to bear the data costs of accessing their services. In short, Flipkart agreed to pay Airtel the cost of access every time a user logged on to Flipkart using the telecommunication major’s network. To get back to the highway and roads analogy, it’s similar to a road company agreeing to pay the National Highway Authority of India the toll for a car user. To take the analogy further, it’s like the NHAI agreeing to pay the car company fuel costs every time a user decides to drive the car on the highway. The main principle of non-discrimination is decisively broken in this case, as it gives an unfair advantage to someone with deep pockets to mould the choice of content that’s available to the user. There are three main points to consider in the net neutrality debate.

Internet has been a great leveler across several societies precisely because it doesn’t discriminate what it carries. It has spawned absolutely fresh business models, brought forth new forms and methods of political mobilisation, decisively closed the feedback loop between government and people and pitched new ways of bringing in market mechanisms and social schemes to hitherto marginalised and deprived communities. If it weren’t for internet, there would be no out of the box solutions like Bitcoins. This agnostic nature of internet is also the reason why everything from pornography to home-made drugs is easily accessible and available. Any substantial change to this agnostic nature of the internet, which is possibly the last arena with a great equalising potential, is bound to kill innovation and creativity. It’s here that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s comment about such gated enclaves being a great way to make internet accessible to all needs to be rebutted strongly. In essence, what Zuckerberg is saying is turn the internet in itself into a product with multiple price points. So while some of the well endowed folks can have a Jaguar or a Ferrari of an internet, others should be happy that they are at least getting a bicycle. This particular logic needs to be demolished once and for all as it goes against the essence of internet, which has been enshrined in several ways in numerous multilateral forums. In fact, internet as a fundamental right flows from this essence.

The second is the increasing meshing of the lines between spectrum allocation, telecommunication companies, fibre optic networks and cables, pure play voice services and the applications ecosystem. This meshing is allowing several companies and entities to easily cross the earlier threshold of information service by creating over-the-top (OTT) applications that are providing both transaction and commerce solutions. Additionally, they are also eating into the voice services revenues. This is obviously causing a lot of heartburn to the telecom majors, who paid massive amounts for the spectrum and sunk in huge sums of money in capital investment. A Skype or a WhatsApp is a typical example. There is a fair point of telecom companies here feeling shortchanged. While regulation and policy can provide some sort of a solution framework in the short run, the real challenge for the telecommunication companies is the speed and scale of their innovation.

Historically, telecommunication companies have always come up short in this regard, and the same is true of the Indian companies.
Innovation can only be matched by innovation, and not by trying to partition and apportion the internet as some landed property.

The third is the emerging Internet of Things, and that is going to be the biggest challenge to the main principle of non-discrimination that locates net neutrality today. Unlike the challenge posed by the market, which is one of creating enclaves and gated gardens, this is a good challenge to have as it comes from innovation. With machines increasingly talking to and transacting with others of their kind and humans, there has to be debate, sooner than later, on what takes precedence on the internet highway.

A good question to start off the debate is this: Would a YouTube video showing a gyrating dance routine of a Bollywood film have the same chance of reaching its destination in the internet highway as a pacemaker transmitting health details of a heart patient to the hospital?

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