Mukhtar Ahmad Farooqi
Net Neutrality has become a buzzword in THE telecom/technological world after when the Indian governments’ Department of Telecommunications’ (DoT) approved the principles of net neutrality in India. Even though Net neutrality has become one of the most talked about issues around the world over the last half a decade but it as of August 2015, there were no laws governing net neutrality , which would require that all Internet users be treated equally, without discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. The debate on network neutrality in India gathered public attention after Airtel announced in December 2014 additional charges for making voice calls (VoIP) from its network using apps like WhatsApp, Skype. Airtel was the first to announce zero rating plan by the name Airtel Zero where it will offer customers free access to certain apps and services, with cost of this data traffic being borne by the partner. For example, if Flipkart signed up as an Airtel Zero partner, you will not be charged for data you use while accessing Flipkart and Airtel will bill Flipkart for that session. Flipkart after facing a strong backslash for joining the Airtel Zero programme withdrew from it and came out in support of Net neutrality. Before proceeding further in this regard let us try to understand the concept of Net Neutrality.
Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by the user, content, site, and platform, and application, type of attached equipment or mode of communication. In simple terms Net neutrality means Internet Service Providers should treat all traffic on their networks equally so as to give everyone a fair chance of growth and reject the idea of monopolies. That means companies like Airtel should not block or slowdown access to any website or content on the web so as to benefit their own service over those of competitors. The term Net Neutrality was coined by Professor Tim Wu in 2003 in an academic paper titled “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination”. The idea further justifies that your ISP shouldn’t be given the power to block or degrade your access to websites or services, and nor should they be allowed to control “fast lane” which leads the content favoured by the internet service providers to load more quickly as compared to the rest of the content.
Let’s understand this using the example of Facebook. When Mark Zuckerberg created this social media platform, he didn’t end up asking Verizon, Comcast and any other internet service providers (ISP) to add Facebook to their platform which meant that Zuckerberg didn’t need to pay these ISPs any extra money to ensure that Facebook works in a similar way to other establish websites on the network and the website automatically was accessible from any computer in the world connected to the internet. This is called network neutrality.
In short, Network neutrality or net neutrality keeps all the barriers to check the entry for new websites and internet applications. There are many who believe that net neutrality has allowed the rise of innovative online services including Netflix, Amazon, Skype, Google, Twitter and more.
In March 2015, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a formal consultation paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services, seeking comments from the public on differential data pricing and consumers like me and you were asked to email those. The consultation paper was criticized for being one sided and having confusing statements. On 8 February 2016, TRAI took a revolutionary decision, prohibiting telecom service providers from levying discriminatory rates for data, thus ruling in favor of Net Neutrality in India. This move was welcomed by millions of Indians and also by people from other countries who are fighting or fought for net neutrality and the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee.
What net neutrality means for common man ?
In a vital decision that will help secure the rights of Internet users in India , the Telecom Commission has approved the recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on net neutrality. The Commission has made it clear that any violation of net neutrality will be treated as a violation of the license conditions. It has said that some specialized and emerging services such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) may be exempt from the non-discriminatory principles, but these cannot be at the cost of the overall quality of Internet access. This provision has helped growth from a networked system of computers that enabled e-commerce, social interaction, knowledge flow and entertainment, among other functions. The net neutrality rules means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot discriminate against Internet content and services by blocking, throttling or granting them higher speed access. What this means is that your ISP or internet provider cannot charge you extra for say watching videos on Netflix at a high-speed. The rules bar ISPs from creating high-speed data lanes, or charging extra for viewing certain kind of content on the web.
It also means that zero-rating packages like Facebook Free Basics, where certain content is provided for free like access to Facebook, also remain illegal in India. The recommendations had also noted, “The use of Internet should be facilitated in such a manner that it advances the free speech rights of citizens, by ensuring plurality and diversity of views, opinions, and ideas. The regulator had also recommended restrictions on service providers from entering into agreements which lead to discriminatory treatment of content on the Internet. When it comes to Internet of Things (IoT),) TRAI said it “should not be specifically excluded from the scope of the restrictions on nondiscriminatory treatment.”
Under the new set of net neutrality rules , online access will be unrestricted and non-discriminatory while there will be some exceptions such as emerging services including autonomous driving, remote-diagnostic and telemedicine services that are said to require faster speeds and prioritized internet lanes.
This decision by government is a historic one because there is a a new Wi-Fi project under which all police stations, schools, post offices and primary health centers will be connected to Wi-Fi services while there will be a couple of additional Wi-Fi hotspots which will be available for public access throughout the day, the timeline for the completion of which is December 2018.
Net neutrality is a prerequisite to keep the internet an egalitarian and an open platform which is made for the enrichment of everyone. In today’s technologically driven world, for facilitating growth and innovation, democratic internet services are indispensable so that telecom operators and ISP’s will not misuse specialized services to deceive customers thereby contradicting with the very notion of net neutrality.
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org