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Insights into Editorials: Internet Access at the Cost of Net neutrality?

08 October 2015

Access at the cost of Net neutrality?

Earlier this year, the social media giant, Facebook, formalised a partnership with Reliance Communications that enabled Reliance to provide access to over 30 different websites, without any charge on mobile data accruing to the ultimate user.

  • The platform, originally known as “Internet.org,” has now been rebranded as “Free Basics“. However, its fundamental ethos remains unchanged.

What it does?

  • It allows Reliance’s subscribers to surf completely free of cost a bouquet of websites covered within the scheme, which includes facebook.com.

How is it being viewed?

Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, views this initiative as a philanthropic gesture, as part of a purported, larger aim to bring access to the Internet to those people who find the costs of using generally available mobile data prohibitive.

But, there are many critics who argue that Free Basics violates what has come to be known as the principle of network (or Net) neutrality.

So, what is Net neutrality?

Net neutrality is an interpretive concept. The term was coined by Tim Wu — an American lawyer and presently a professor at the Columbia University. He views the notion of Net neutrality as signifying an Internet that does not favour any one application over another. In other words, the idea is to ensure that Internet service providers do not discriminate content by either charging a fee for acting as its carrier or by incorporating any technical qualifications.

How is it managed in India?

There are no laws enforcing net neutrality in India. Although TRAI guidelines for the Unified Access Service license promote net neutrality, it does not enforce it. The Information Technology Act 2000 also does not prohibit companies from throttling their service in accordance with their business interests.

TRAI’s recent draft consultation paper:

Recently, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a draft consultation paper seeking the public’s views on whether the Internet needed regulation. Much of its attention was focussed on the supposedly pernicious impact of applications such as WhatsApp and Viber, and very less on net neutrality.

  • TRAI says, “In a multi-ethnic society there is a vital need to ensure that the social equilibrium is not impacted adversely by communications that inflame passions, disturb law and order and lead to sectarian disputes.”

The basic questions raised by the above view are:

  • Should at least some Internet applications be amenable to a greater regulation?
  • Should they compensate the telecom service providers in addition to the data charges that the consumers pay directly for the use of mobile Internet?

What if the government answers these questions in the affirmative?

If the government eventually answers these questions in the affirmative, the consequences could be drastic.

  • It could lead to a classification of Internet applications based on arbitrary grounds, by bringing some of them, whom the government views as harmful to society in some manner or another, within its regulatory net.
  • Through such a move, the state, contrary to helping establish principles of Net neutrality as a rule of law, would be actively promoting an unequal Internet.

Why it is necessary to have a specific law mandating net neutrality?

  • In the absence of a specific law mandating a neutral Internet, telecom companies enjoy a virtual carte blanche to discriminate between different applications.
  • Though these companies have not yet completely exploited this autonomy, they are certainly proceeding towards such an exercise.
  • Also alarming is that mobile Internet service providers could, in the future, plausibly also control the speeds at which different applications are delivered to consumers. This kind of discrimination tends to breed an unequal playing field, and, if allowed to subsist, it could create a deep division in the online world.

Airtel Zero case:

  • In April this year, 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 which could potentially stifle innovation and startup growth. There was also an allegation that it effectively tilts the balance in favor of the bigger players.
  • 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.

Views of telecom companies:

  • Telecom companies that wish to discriminate between applications argue that in the absence of an Internet that has completely permeated all strata of society, an obligation to maintain neutrality is not only unreasonable on the companies, but also unfair on the consumer.
  • They argue that initiatives like internet.org and Airtel zero bring, at least, some portions of the Internet to people who otherwise have no means to access the web.

This gives rise to a clash of values: between access to the Internet (in a limited form) and the maintenance of neutrality in an atmosphere that is inherently unequal. This makes tailoring a solution to the problem a particularly arduous process.

What net neutrality proponents say?

  • Net neutrality proponents aren’t resistant to the idea of a greater penetration of the Internet. But, their apprehensions lie in companies resorting to what they believe is an unethical means to achieving, at least in theory, a laudable end.
  • According to them, negating Net neutrality, in a bid to purportedly achieve greater access to the Internet in the immediate future, could prove profoundly injurious in the long run.

Conclusion:

It is therefore, absolutely necessary that any debate that on the issue ought to include the tension between the two apparently conflicting values — the importance of maintaining a neutral Internet and the need to ensure a greater access to the web across the country. Facebook’s CEO Zuckerberg argues that these two values are not fundamentally opposed to each other, but can — and must — coexist. He is possibly correct at a theoretical level.

Source: The Hindu.

Topic Covered (Paper – 2):

Important aspects of governance, transparency and accountability. (UPSC Civil Services Mains Syllabus)