Understanding the nuances of Net Neutrality

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Picture Source: savetheinternet.com

A specter is haunting Indian telecom- specter of ‘Net Neutrality’. All the powers of law and finance are trying to come out with a solution to it.

While paraphrasing Karl Marx, I must clarify at the beginning that Net Neutrality has very less in common with communism. Just a literary Ctrl+C and Shift+Ctrl+V. Nevertheless, a serious issue has come up once again. TRAI has called for comments on Net Neutrality through a consultation paper[1]. The comments are to be sent by 22 March 2017.

While some of us may know a few things about the topic, it is important to understand it. Before going any further, lets try to analyze the issue in perspective.

India has 112 Cr telecom subscribers today of which 22 Cr access broadband Internet.[2] It is noteworthy that the increase in subscribers has been 30 times over since 2001 when the total subscribers were nearly 4 Cr. This is phenomenal growth in telecom, unparalleled in the world and unheard of in India. The total revenue of telecom companies this year is expected to be more than Rs. 2,50,000 Cr.

Basically, Internet became popular because it was free. And it served everyone on an equal platform. Whether you are a multibillion company or a startup, your website and other content was accessible at similar speeds.

Indian government has decided to focus on cash less transactions moving towards digital economy. ‘Digital India’ is the flagship scheme of the government focusing on creating infrastructure and online service delivery. Most of the government services if not all are available online. Under Bharat Net, the government will be connecting around 2.5 Lakh Gram Panchayats by Optic Fiber Cable providing up to 100 Mbps Internet in upcoming years.[3]

Therefore, Internet traffic in India has been growing exponentially and is expected to grow at increasing rates. As Mr. Mukesh Ambani notes, “Data is the new oil”[4]. How Internet is governed is a matter of concern for all of us. It’s no more a luxury. Internet is now part of our life, business, governance and in a big way entertainment. And how the TSPs (Telecom Service Providers) price the Internet will have impact on all of us.

As of now Internet is free. You do pay a charge to your operator but it is for the overall consumption of data, irrespective of the type of content and its source. Net Neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. In layman’s language it means the Telecom Operators will not be able to differentiate between different data on Internet and assign different speeds for them. As of now telecom companies treat the data equally. So no operator can artificially fasten or slow down any website or not charge the consumers to use a particular content.

To understand it better, think of the opposite. Suppose we do not have Net Neutrality. A hypothetical example would be: Facebook enters in partnership with Reliance Jio, thus all the users of Reliance can access Facebook faster or for free. Also Facebook may ask Reliance Jio to slow down its competitors (say Twitter or Snapchat).

To understand more about it, please visit Jon Oliver’s Last Week Tonight segment on Net Neutrality (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpbOEoRrHyU)

Understandably, major content providers and some TSPs argue against Net Neutrality or in favor what they call ‘differential pricing’. TSPs claim that by differential pricing they will be able to augment additional revenue. It would be put up to strengthen the backhaul infrastructure. According to the above-mentioned TRAI statistics, 90% of the Broadband users are wireless subscribers. To ensure higher and sustainable data, there is need to invest in infrastructure too.

Basically, Internet became popular because it was free. And it served everyone on an equal platform. Whether you are a multibillion company or a startup, your website and other content was accessible at similar speeds. It is noteworthy that the present day behemoths of Internet, i.e. Google and Facebook began as startup projects of few college students. If Differential Pricing is allowed, it may end up throttling the very idea of Internet. Startups can never compete with such giants to reduce the cost of their data. The users may be required to pay higher for certain content, or the Internet could get Balkanized.

TRAI in its Feb 2016 order[5] on Net Neutrality had ordered TSPs not to have differential pricing. That means TSPs were not able to differentiate between the content providers and/or allow ‘differential pricing’. The TSPs cannot enter in contract with any of these Content Providers for free/fast data delivery to the users.

The new consultation paper is the second of the two-stage consultation process. TRAI has floated numerous ideas and has given detailed elaboration of those ideas. The paper itself is 65 pages long, but presents a fascinating read. Some of the important questions, among many others raised by the paper are as follows.

  • What should be the broad regulatory framework of Net Neutrality in India?
  • What should be the legal/technical definition of Net Neutrality?
  • What should constitute legitimate Traffic Management Practices for the telecom operators?
  • What should be the model of regulation of Net Neutrality in India?
  • What should be the framework under which telecom operators transparently inform the users of their traffic management policy?

Net neutrality isn’t as simple as free and accessible Internet on side and corporate greed on the other. It is not just black and white. The idea behind this article is to make everyone aware of the nuances. For example, what actually would consist of legitimate traffic management? How do I know that my telecom operator is not slowing me down artificially? And if they are, where and how should I approach the law enforcement agencies? Should there be a law or an order by the TRAI would provide sufficient legal backing? Is there a need to amend TRAI act to give the Authority specific powers to ensure net Neutrality? Should there be any other (legislative) oversight on this?

Apart from the obvious good things, there are certain ‘not so good’ aspects of Internet usage in India. We are third in global online porn viewership.[6] The most searched keyword by the inquisitive Indians on the Internet is Sunny Leone surpassing even Salman Khan.[7] This is not to comment on character of Indians or make people Sanskari. That’s neither my job nor my intention.

According to TRAI, the Urban Tele-density is 164 against 52 in rural areas. Also the speed of Internet is way better in urban areas compared to low speed and high cost in rural areas. Therefor a college student in South Mumbai can download HD Porn or Game of Thrones episodes at high speed and ridiculously cheap prices. And a widow in hinterland Bihar pays higher price at slower speed to file online RTI or verify whether her MGNREGA wages have been deposited. I’m aware of the ‘economies of scale’ offered in cities along with strong backhaul (optic fiber). Does that mean the situation should continue like this? Do we need a policy instrument to differentiate urban-rural data? Such instrument may in fact violate Net Neutrality! The point here is to encourage debate on this topic.

If there is limited capacity of the network to transfer data, what should be the priority? Two users, one watching Kapil Sharma show on YouTube and other one studying on Coursera should be treated same or different? Generally Video data needs more bandwidth than text or images. Should Video be treated same as text? If we treat them different, then what principle is to be followed to differentiate? As of now certain companies do have technical advantage over others. Ex: Google products (YouTube, Blog and Search) appear faster than other websites, because of the numerous data centers and proprietary algorithms they have developed. Do we need specific regulation to ensure such technical superiority is not used to exploit commercial gains?

TRAI has also invited comments on a ‘TSP agnostic Third Party Content Aggregator’. It ensures neutrality regarding the operator, but keeps open differential pricing for the content provider. Whether such idea can help operators to raise revenue or throttle the startups who will not to able to pay to these aggregators? What would be the regulating mechanism, going beyond the mandatory license as prescribed by TRAI? Should such idea be allowed in the first place?

The global debate on Net Neutrality is transforming in many ways. The new chairman of US Federal Communications Commission is reported to have divergent views than his predecessor, who upheld Net Neutrality. Thus there might be changes to the ‘open Internet’ order[8]. It becomes important in Indian context to raise awareness about the topic.

I am not taking any side or even hinting at one. The article hopefully raises more questions than answers, precisely serving its purpose.

Eternal Vigilance’, said Thomas Jefferson, ‘is the price of democracy’. Lets be vigilant and participate in the debate to protect and preserve digital democracy. Please make sure you send the comments to TRAI by 22 March 2017.

(The views expressed by the author are strictly personal)

[1] http://www.trai.gov.in/consultation-paper-net-neutrality-6

[2] TRAI telecom subscription data 30 Nov 2016

[3] http://www.bbnl.nic.in

[4] http://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/data-is-the-new-oil-trump-a-blessing-for-india-mukesh-ambani-117021501200_1.html

[5] http://www.trai.gov.in/sites/default/files/Regulation_Data_Service.pdf

[6] http://www.news18.com/news/buzz/india-ahead-of-canada-and-australia-in-porn-consumption-ranks-third-all-over-the-globe-1188229.html

[7]http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/hindi/bollywood/news/Sunny-Leone-beats-Narendra-Modi-Becomes-most-searched-personality-of-2016/articleshow/55745034.cms

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/02/01/what-trumps-new-fcc-chairman-thinks-about-net-neutrality/?utm_term=.493cad67f7a9