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Social implications of Net Neutrality!

Ishwari Bajpai*

Net neutrality is the big buzz in town. It has suddenly exploded on social media with multiple signature campaigns, most of which are in favour of keeping the net neutral. The government says it is waiting for two reports, one from its own committee, and the other from the Telecom Regulator (TRAI), which  has put out a paper with suggestions and asked the public to respond – 3 lakh responses, according to some reports. But if you aren’t quite clear about what has triggered this national controversy, here is a quick primer.Basically, net neutrality is about money and access. Currently, anyone who has an internet connection can search for anything and go to any site on the net and the internet service provider (mainly telcos like Airtel, RCom) will debit/charge the user for each byte they use from whatever plan they have. So if you have a 3GB plan, you can download 3GB of data per billing cycle (normally a month). Simple. So what’s the problem?

The problem is with the telcos. They are increasingly finding that users are using the internet to communicate, and are therefore by passing the telcos’ voice and messaging services by using Skype, WhatsApp, Viber and other such apps. This means that telcos are losing income on both calls and smses. TRAI notes that smses fell by 1000 million or 18% between June 2013 and June 2014. International calls, which account for 10% of the telcos revenues, fell by upto 25%. Other services, like cricket scores and stock market info that earlier came through Value Added Services (which were billed separately to the customer) was also compromised.  So, obviously the telcos wanted to cover such losses. They believed that since you can’t do away with the internet and its apps, perhaps it is best to join them.They chose to follow the path that US cable operators had tried for a number of years, until the FCC (the US regulatory body) implemented net neutrality this February, stopping the plan  to offer “premium” internet services for free, or at high speed. Internet service providers would then charge the internet companies, like, say Facebook, a premium for being on the fast track. It is a bit like what cable operators in India do, which is to charge television channels a carriage or placement fee.In February this year, RCom announced an agreement with Facebook amongst others, where they would not charge for usage of these sites by subscribers. RCom did not release any information about the commercial understanding between them and Facebook and others.

On April 6, Airtel joined in by offering a similar package called Airtel Zero, which allowed subscribers to go to the selected internet sites without using any of their data plan. In other words, free access to this selected world of the internet. Sounded wonderful – people who could not afford to pay for this access would now be able to use various apps for free.It took a few days, but then social media exploded with criticism of this. The argument is that net neutrality is a fundamental right and any effort to restrict a free and open means of communication was unacceptable. To give A preference over B is discriminatory and can, if taken to an extreme, suppress the fundamental right to free speech. And in a sense, that is true –  by making access expensive (or slow and hard to get), alternative views could be suppressed by the fact that you could not get to them. Furthermore, this could act as a means for those with deeper pockets to push their views on a particular topic or issue.

At the more commercial level, it could mean that e-commerce companies with large revenue would dominate the markets and increase their monopoly, as small players and startups would find it very difficult to meet the demands of the telcos for placement and for absorbing the charges that would ordinarily be borne by the customer. The level playing field that the internet offers would be gone. Furthermore, it would discourage innovation and competition from new ideas. Given that one of the fundamentals of the internet has always been that it is a place of new ideas and change, this would destroy that essence.The reason that Flipkart flipped its position on Airtel Zero is, according to co-founder Mukesh Bansal, “It’s very important to make sure that the Internet grows in a manner where it is democratic, equally accessible, and [with] absolutely no discrimination of any kind.” Unfortunately, after first having jumped onto the Airtel ship, only to jump off when it found itself subject to a torrent of social media criticism, this seems to be an effort to placate the public and, more importantly, their customer base.For Airtel, what seemed to be a brilliant move to improve its bottom line, has turned out to be a public relations disaster, both for itself as well as the concept of premium internet services. But the company has defended its position with Airtel Chief of Strategy Shyam Mardikar  arguing “What we are confusing here is the concept of service neutrality to net neutrality.” The company also claims that more than a 150 companies, big  and small had applied to join Airtel Zero.The issue of service neutrality is difficult to agree with, because it is service that defines net neutrality. As for the claim that companies are rushing to join – that does not negate the argument that many will not be able to afford to do so.
The fact is that there has been a huge public outcry against the attempt to avoid net neutrality. That this has come at a time when TRAI and government are considering the issue of internet neutrality should have an impact on the regulatory decisions.


 

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