Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data on the Internet the same way, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, or application.
In essence, it advocates for an open Internet where all data is treated equally, and users have equal access to all lawful content without any form of discrimination.
Net neutrality has been a subject of debate and regulatory discussions in many countries. Some countries have implemented strong net neutrality regulations to ensure an open Internet, while others have taken a more hands-off approach, allowing ISPs more flexibility in how they manage their networks.
Who are the Internet Service Providers (ISPs)?
Companies like Airtel, BSNL, Reliance (Jio), Vodaphone, Idea, etc provide Internet Service.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are companies that provide Internet access services to individuals, businesses, and other organizations. They play a crucial role in connecting users to the global network of the internet. ISPs offer various types of internet connections, services, and plans, allowing users to access the internet for different purposes.
Types of Internet Connections:
- Broadband: This is the most common type of internet connection provided by ISPs. It includes Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), cable, fiber-optic, and satellite connections.
- DSL: Uses telephone lines to provide internet access.
- Cable: Uses cable television lines.
- Fiber-Optic: Employs optical fibers to transmit data at high speeds.
- Satellite: Relies on satellite signals for internet connectivity.
Services Offered by ISPs:
- Internet Access: Providing users with the ability to connect to the internet.
- Email Services: Many ISPs offer email services to their subscribers.
- Web Hosting: Some ISPs provide web hosting services for individuals and businesses.
- Virtual Private Networks (VPNs): ISPs may offer VPN services for enhanced security and privacy.
How can ISPs treat data on the Internet unequally?
Ideally, ISPs should charge users based on the data consumed or on a subscription basis (monthly) plans. But what if they charge you based on the websites you visit?
For example, if an ISP Company XYZ, provides Services like Skype, Bing, and Facebook for FREE, and charges you for using Google, this is a clear violation of net neutrality. Here Skype, Bing, and Facebook get a competitive advantage, while Google will lose a lot of traffic and revenue. Also, it is a case where ISPs interfere with the choice of consumers.
What is Net Neutrality, in simple words?
Net Neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers should enable access to all content and applications without favoring or blocking particular websites.
The term was coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003.
Key principles of net neutrality include:
- Equal Treatment of Data: Net neutrality advocates for the equal treatment of all data on the Internet. This means that ISPs should not favor or block particular websites or services, nor should they throttle (slow down) or prioritize certain types of data traffic.
- No Discrimination: Net neutrality opposes any form of discrimination against specific websites, services, or applications. ISPs should not provide preferential treatment to their content or that of affiliated partners, nor should they disadvantage competitors.
- Transparency: ISPs are expected to be transparent about their network management practices, ensuring that consumers are aware of how their Internet traffic is being treated.
- No Paid Prioritization: Net neutrality discourages the practice of paid prioritization, where companies or individuals could pay ISPs for faster or better access to their content, creating a tiered Internet.
- Innovation and Competition: Supporters of net neutrality argue that an open Internet fosters innovation and competition by allowing new and small players to compete on an equal footing with established ones.
- Consumer Rights: Net neutrality is seen as protecting the rights of consumers by ensuring that they have unrestricted access to the content and services of their choice without interference from ISPs.
Internet.org and Free basics – A case of violation of Net Neutrality
- Internet.org is a partnership between Social Networking services company Facebook and six other companies that plan to bring affordable access to selected Internet services to less developed countries.
- “Free Basics” is the name of the app that delivers these services.
- However, this was a violation of the concept of Net Neutrality.
- Regulators banned the Free Basics service in India based on the “Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations”.
Airtel Zero – A case of violation of Net Neutrality
- Airtel announced Airtel Zero, an initiative that would allow applications to purchase data from Airtel in exchange for the telecom company offering them to consumers free of cost.
- Airtel Zero was widely perceived as a violation of net neutrality.
- By paying to be on Airtel Zero, companies could make sure that their users get free access to their service, while smaller players are at a disadvantage.
- However, Airtel has said that zero-rating does not violate net neutrality as it lowers the cost of access and it is “non-discriminatory”.
- To prevent such things, it appears necessary to have a specific mandating a neutral internet.
Arguments supporting Net Neutrality
- Services on the internet must be equally accessible to all and no discrimination should be there.
- Without Net neutrality, the right to freedom of speech and expression would be affected.
- It would be detrimental from the consumer point of view too.
- Net neutrality will promote architecture and innovative development of the Internet.
- The Internet is the result of the time and creativity of many volunteers for many decades and hence it should not be left in the hands of the few, hence ethically wrong if it is done away with.
- Without Net neutrality, the new start-ups would be at a disadvantage.
Arguments against Net Neutrality
- The economic principle of paying differently for different levels of service and experience is recognized by Differential Pricing.
- Massive investment loss would be there.
- Future investments in telecommunications infrastructure will be curtailed, thereby impacting user experience.
- Applications that use the voice over internet protocol (VoIP), have led to a reduction in voice-based traffic.
- It will impact the government’s Digital India initiative.
- It is ethically questionable because operators have to invest in maintaining and expanding the Internet’s infrastructure to support new services while most benefits are reaped by Internet content companies like Google, Facebook, etc.
- The Internet has survived because of little or no regulation, hence creativity and future development should not be crippled.
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)’s Stand
TRAI is the Telecom regulator in India.
The TRAI had ruled for Net Neutrality thus banning Facebook’s Free Basics and Airtel Zero in India.
- There should not be any discrimination.
- Protection of rights of citizens.
- It excludes specialized services and content delivery networks (CDNs).
- Setting up a multi-stakeholder body.
The Significance of TRAI’s Recommendations
- Constitutional promises are fulfilled.
- Users’ right to freedom of speech and expression is prioritized.
- It also ensures a level playing field for service providers to innovate and customize in India.
- Democracy of the internet is kept intact.
- It helps build the Internet as a public platform with open access to all.
- It addresses the problem of anti-competitive practices.
- Judicious and transparent use of national resources for a greater public benefit.
- People’s participation in decision-making is enhanced.
Is there a law in India that enforces Net Neutrality?
Although TRAI guidelines for the Unified Access Service License promote net neutrality, it does not enforce it.
There are no laws enforcing net neutrality in India.
The Information Technology Act 2000 also does not prohibit companies from throttling their service.
Conclusion and Way Forward
- India’s Internet adoption rate remains among the lowest in the Asia-Pacific region with 422 million subscribers. 500-550 million Indians use feature phones that offer no data services. A Kleiner Perkins Internet Trends Report for 2017 notes that even though smartphone and data costs are declining in India, they are still too high for most.
- India’s decision to uphold Net neutrality assumes greater significance, given that in the U.S., the rules on the network neutrality were repealed.
- As there is no country-wide law now in the US favoring Net Neutrality, states like Massachusetts are coming up with state-level laws.
- The scrapping of the net neutrality rules in the US sets a dangerous precedent for other countries like India where emboldened regulators could pursue similar routes. As a way forward in India, a proper mechanism needs to be instituted.
- Telcos’ must also make adequate investments to cater to the explosion of data traffic.
Article by Ipsita Mishra