Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Net Neutrality: The lifeline of the Internet




In this age of information i.e. where information is considered as the most important resource, Internet (or the Web) has emerged as a ubiquitous medium for getting access to all kinds of information. Because of the presence that the Internet (will be calling it the Net onwards in this article) has made in all sectors of life, it has become the primary medium for availing services to users remotely. As with any popular medium of information/services, Net also has its fare share of challenges and debates, the most popular right now being of Net neutrality. Let’s see why Net neutrality means, and why it is a hot topic of debate.


Net Neutrality
Over few decades of evolution that the Net has seen, it has maintained a very peculiar characteristic, as is the case with other public communication and information sharing mediums like telephone, radio etc. The characteristic is its Content and Service Neutralityi.e. the Net itself does not distinguish between the type of content and the service that is being delivered over it. The concept of Net is very loose here, because it essentially means the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as it is the ISPs that act as the access points for users of the Net.
As already mentioned, the concept of neutrality towards content is not something unique to the Net; it hold for almost all mediums of communication/information delivery. Contrast this property with electricity, which is distributed as a commodity rather than as a medium, and is service aware (Electricity bills change based on commercial vs. household connections, peak load basis, use of special devices like air conditioners etc.)

Why are talking about this?
We are talking about Net neutrality due to the ongoing debate on violation of Net neutrality. Out the various such instances, some have been very popular:
1.     The first major incident was in December 2014 when Airtel announced that it will levy extra charges for making voice calls from it’s network over internet (VoIP).
2.     In February 2015, Facebook launched Internet.org in India with Reliance Communications which provides free access to a selected set of websites through an app. The commotion is about the criteria for selecting only these websites for free access, which is apparently biased and violates Net neutrality.
3.     In April 2015, Airtel came up with the Airtel Zero scheme, where it will provide free access to Internet to certain apps, if the app developer firm has already signed the Airtel zero contract.

Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has been under constant criticism for not being able to take action against these incidents and has not been able to ensure Net neutrality.
There have been many such incidents that potentially violate Net neutrality. I use the term “potentially” here because the notion of Net neutrality has never been fully formalized and it is still ambiguous as to what constitutes Net neutrality. For example, Facebook claims that Internet.org is an anthropologic initiative and thus does not violate Net neutrality. However, the experts’ opinions suggest something else. So, I will leave this interpretation to the reader, until a formal framework for Net neutrality comes into effect.

Is Net neutrality so critical?
In short, yes, it is. As aforementioned that Net has become the primary medium for exchange of information and facilitation of remote services, it holds utmost power in the sense that sentiment and information filtering on the Net can drastically change scenario of competition in the market and reduce quality of content and services. This will basically eliminate any new players from the cutthroat competition even before they make their online presence.
 Extrapolation of these impacts to a few years in the future paints a very horrific picture of the market where only an elite few (with deep pockets) will hold control of what reaches the end-users and basically manipulate their behavior at will.

Legal aspects
There are absolutely no laws for enforcing Net neutrality in India. TRAI has some guidelines for the Unified Access Service License, that promotes Net neutrality but don’t enforce it.  The IT Act 2000 also does not make any provisions regarding Net neutrality.

The way ahead…
The debate over Net neutrality is going to grow even more turbulent because of the importance of Internet and criticality of Net neutrality not just for large corporations but also for individual end users. Since, we have already established that access to unbiased information is critical for innovation and indiscriminate online presence is necessary for maintaining fair competition, Indian legal system needs to ensure that a formal legal framework is put into effect around the principles of Net neutrality.

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