Many of our readers want our view on net neutrality or internet neutrality. Actually they want to know what I feel about all the recent hue and cry in India regarding equal Internet access for all. To sum up, they want to know how I see net neutrality debate in India and more specifically, what is the true picture.
Although I don’t claim the best understanding of the questions surrounding net neutrality, I see myself understanding it better than many others. Including those who are taking part in Twitter protests and TV Channel debates.
What Internet neutrality actually means?
Out of all the definitions, the one which explains Internet neutrality best is : No one Owns the internet or Web.
Net neutrality (also network neutrality, Internet neutrality, or net equality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially on the grounds of user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. In simple, Net neutrality can be seen as bus ticket to Delhi. Irrespective of how you choose to reach there — bus, train, or car — when in Delhi, it’s up to you what places you want to visit. Net neutrality is like Cash. When in Delhi, it’s up to you how you spend it and its value will remain the same.
What is the latest controversy in India claimed to be involving Net neutrality?
All the debate regarding net neutrality started when some telecom operators, including Airtel, Reliance Communications and Uninor, started concepts where they claimed to provide ‘free’ access to certain internet applications (to mobile users), if the ISP is paid by the makers of the said apps.
If said in other words, if Airtel sees money, or sees certain mobile app having the potential to increase its mobile subscriber base and subscriber spend, then it can have a business deal with such an app, where there’s some money or non-money agreement between them.
What Airtel or Uninor are doing now, is not new in india. A couple of months ago, Facebook and Anil Ambani led Reliance Communication also had a similar deal, where Reliance mobile subscribers can access Facebook free of cost on their phones. Free access means they don’t have to pay Reliance any money (in the form of mobile recharge or top ups) if they use Facebook. While using Facebook the RComm billing meter will stop. The spectrum will still be used though.
The free access can NEVER mean Reliance or Airtel speeding up Facebook access and usage speed, by giving it preferential treatment at the cost of other similar apps such as Twitter, or any other website or blog.
Speeds depend on the internet access plans. If I have two internet plans, a 100 mbps plan and a 21mbps plan, then compared to the 21 mbps plan, all apps and sites will open 5 times faster on 100 mbps plan. Unless my request is made to wait to make way for other.
Although, more footfalls and activity on Facebook app will mean more spectrum being spent. That doesn’t mean we can assume, RComm will do that at the cost of small players. I mean one can’t say this for sure.
If the mobile operator, sets aside a spectrum chunk for bigger players such as Facebook, Whatsapp at the cost of common users such as you and I, then surely it becomes an issue of internet neutrality. But that’s for the Governments to investigate. For example, ever since 3G services began in India, you will hardly find any person who seems satisfied with the quality of service. Either there’s no network or no speed. If that’s the result of already burdened resources, then all one can ask is: Why these telecom companies are taking new subscribers? But you can’t say for sure that Telecom companies are secretly earmarking resources for top users or distributing the resource as if it is their own property.
Thus this ends internet neutrality debate for now.
Internet or Web is not Democratic
Ever since this issue of internet neutrality surfaced in Public, many people are confusing net neutrality with net Democracy, where everyone has equal rights. There can be no bigger lie than this.
The democracy ends at ownership, access and speeds itself. Speeds because, no one can stop a person from opting for an internet access plan with higher speeds. The same way no one stops anyone from buying a ferrari in real world. But if you’re content with a bicycle, then you will reach your destination in much time or sometimes not reach there at all.
Thus internet or Web has the same restrictions and inequalities as real World.
One can surf only those places online which are truly Public. Such as our website. Anyone from across the globe can consume content here. It’s not uncommon to find websites and apps online which are Private or are open to particular class of people or nationality. For instance, YouTube can be democratic access-wise, but still many content providers on YouTube choose to bar people from particular countries from accessing their content.
I still think, someone with vested interests misguided Indian people, by making the entire debate as one involving Internet neutrality. A thought was planted in people’s minds that: When Airtel says “Free Access” to certain internet applications, it means 1) preferential treatment to the said apps, at the cost of other sites or apps. OR 2) specifically earmarking spectrum chunk for these apps, at the cost of others.
Now you know it may or may not be the case.
Sachin Bansal of Flipkart paid the price of stating the Fact
The founder of Flipkart, Sachin Bansal, is an intelligent guy. He might have cannibalized the retail market in India, but that he did by benefiting from the existing rules.
Finding clearly that the issue is not that of internet neutrality, Bansal came out in support of initiatives like that of Airtel and tweeted, “when foreign companies do it in India – innovation. Indians do it – violation”.
His tweet was shown as opposing internet neutrality and within a day thousands of people boycotted Flipkart.
I don’t particularly support Bansal’s model of business, but still, this time he’s correct. Hence, it’s not logical to boycott Flipkart over Sachin Bansal’s tweet. The tweet simply told you the truth.
Vested interests, Lobbies and Politics
Ever Since the debate over internet neutrality started on Indian Televisions and Social networks, people with vested interests have jumped in. First some vested groups planted certain telecom developments (Airtel’s free Access concept) as one pertaining internet neutrality and; then other groups grabbed it as an opportunity to change people’s perception.
Even when one assumes that free access to Facebook on Reliance connection has the potential to negatively affect the time spent on other websites and Apps, still that will have no effect on net neutrality. We can oppose such tie-ups on the fears of developing monopoly or spectrum being eaten by big players; but we can’t do that on the ground of internet neutrality. Why? As people will still have the option to visit other apps and websites for content. Just as you visit The Dehradun post. You will keep visiting The Dehradun Post as you love what we post Here. The same way People use WhatsApp or Facebook simply because they love what people post there.
You can understand it this way: Your Office cab can take you to your office for free, but that doesn’t mean you will stop going to a movie on your own vehicle.
This is Not an issue of Net Neutrality
I support anyone who says the tie-ups between Reliance & Facebook, or Airtel & any app does not go against ‘net neutrality’.
In fact they Don’t.
Net neutrality implies equal treatment to all Internet traffic and any priority given to an application or company on payment basis is seen as violating the concept. This means a web user heading for Facebook can’t be given all Green lights, simply because Facebook pays the internet service provider. If I have a certain plan, then I should have the same access to any property online, be it Facebook or The Dehradun Post.
An example will help you understand it better:
Suppose you purchased a Bottle of Water.
After purchasing it, it’s up to you how you plan to use it.
You can use it for drinking, washing your face or cleaning your baby’s posterior.
You can drink it all at one go or take small sips every now and then.
What if the water company starts telling you how to use their water and for what purposes? Or if the water is safe for drinking but unsafe for washing your car’s windscreen. Obviously, you will feel irritated.
The same way, no internet Service provider can tell you which apps or websites you must visit by giving you a quick access or preferential access. No sensible operator will do that. And if they do so, that will be an attack on internet neutrality.
But one thing they can do. If they see people buying a smartphone primarily to spend time on Facebook or WhatsApp, then they can tie up with such services, so that providing the free access to Facebook increases their subscriber base, people’s recharge frequencies (means more money) etc.
I think rather than questioning such tie-ups on the question of net neutrality; we must question it on the ground of Spectrum allocation by the ISP. Is the ISP, such as Airtel or Reliance, earmarking spectrum for big players, as if the Spectrum is its (ISP’s) own property. I’m telling this as, even after paying for 3G plans, most Indians are not getting proper 3G service.
One of the main drawbacks of real-time services such as Twitter and Facebook is that it creates views and perceptions too fast.
Take for instance, the latest internet neutrality debate in India. In an enthusiasm of not to lag behind on the issue, politicians and actors joined the debate. Politicians joined the debate to address the powerful vote banks; actors to sound more sensitive and informed. The Government went a step further. And in order to please powerful retail lobby, it announced it self all game for internet neutrality and indicated its plans to put Anti-trust watchdog CCI into the task of probing some telecom operators, including Airtel, Reliance Communications and Uninor on this issue and other fears.
Who became villain ? Sachin Bansal. Why? As he told people, the concept has nothing to do with internet neutrality.
Amidst Lakhs of Tweets and views in support of internet neutrality, strengthened by the tweets of politicians, film stars, start-up founders and corporates, such as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Digvijay Singh, Ravi Shankar Prasad and all other “I Support net neutrality” groups; no one bothered to ask one question: Is the issue really about Net Neutrality or “non-discriminatory internet access”?
Before joining any debate online, we must ask ourselves: How am I acting? Am I being reactive or proactive? Being reactive means getting swayed by the tide. Being proactive means thinking on the issue logically before supporting any issue or cause.
On web you will never know what content is part of some lobbying effort. For instance, in this very write-up I tried to portray Sachin Bansal, founder of Flipkart, as saying the truth. Ideally, unless you trust my writings, you must not take my support as the real picture. You should trust me only if you find logic in what I said. Who knows, Flipkart might have paid us to portray it as a Saint.
In January 2015, the Government told TRAI to research the issue and present a report by May 2015. I think the research pertains to the burden of data users on existing spectrum. Even if there’s burden on existing infrastructure, that doesn’t mean TRAI can release guidelines to allow ISPs reserve chunks of spectrum for Facebook, WhatsApp or Flipkart. The only way forward in that case is to make the operator increase their existing infrastructure; and if that’s not possible then not take any new subscribers. It can’t stop Flipkart or snapdeal have tie-ups with mobile operators to allow users access such apps free of cost. Notably, the tie up is simply to take the burden from the final user (Either Airtel or Flipkart will pay for our use of the site). This way, Sachin Bansal puts it right: You can’t have double standards for Foreign company and an Indian Company.
As far as net neutrality goes, everything we are protesting right now is based on the premise that Airtel Zero service will offer Free Access to selected Apps at the cost of others. Net Neutrality can never allow that happen.
[LATEST UPDATE: Flipkart has discontinued its talks with Airtel on Airtel Zero Scheme. It’s now important that similar tie-ups between Reliance and Facebook should be questioned as well. As Bansal said, we can’t have double standards for home grown companies and Foreign companies.]