Net Neutrality and an Open Internet

In recent years, the campaign to maintain citizens’ right to the Internet -- and protect them from practices that would benefit only a few – has become fierce and noisy 

Hardnews Bureau Delhi

Netflix, known as the cable television killer, was last year caught in a row with Comcast, a leading Telecom Services Provider (TSP) in the US. Netflix was asked to pay Comcast for uninterrupted download of movies and television shows by Netflix users. When Netflix refused, its content’s buffering speed plummetted, and eventually it caved in and paid Comcast.

This led to fears that TSPs would routinely start charging premiums for better services to companies like Netflix, and, in turn, to users. While larger companies can afford such a premium, smaller companies’ survival would be threatened.

In recent years, the campaign to maintain citizens’ right to the Internet  – and protect them from practices that would benefit only a few – has become fierce and noisy. There is growing clarity that commercial interest or government intervention should not dictate the terms of Internet usage.

Timothy Wu, a professor at Columbia University, coined the term ‘net neutrality’ in 2003. The concept has been the driving force behind Internet activism. Many countries have decided to uphold the neutrality of the Internet, starting with Chile in 2010. Earlier this year, the US passed its net neutrality law which was preceded by a vibrant public debate. A consensus towards upholding the right to neutrality was reached, compelling the US government to take a stand.

India does not have a formal law governing net neutrality. While the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ensures unified access through certain broad guidelines, these guidelines are not enforceable. Concerted action by civil society is trying to ensure both neutrality and the openness of the Internet.

Stakeholders have urged the government to formulate a policy framework that makes controlling, throttling and regulating by private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) more difficult, and ensures fairness in access and usage.

Our access to websites may seem a straightforward affair, but it’s actually quite complex. The daily functioning of the web involves multiple stakeholders working in tandem.

Simply, there are those who provide the infrastructure and those who provide the content. The former are telecom companies, such as Airtel and Vodafonethat provide access to the Internet through either fixed line connections or spectrum allocationAnd companies such as those behind Google, Facebook andTwitter provide content, that makes the Internet what it really is from the users’ point of view.

The Department of Telecom (DoT), on July 2 released its report on the subject. It reaffirmed, though rather ambiguously, the need for net neutrality.

In an almost cryptic report that spans over 100 pages, the government delineates its responsibility in maintaining the right of ‘access’ to the Internet for all. The report underscores the fact that whatever law or definition emerges would be India-specific, but would follow the larger principles of net neutrality.

This report comes after a long debate on the future of the Internet. Those who support neutrality of the net have called it an important step to ensure the rights of every citizen and a much-needed egalitarian measure. Others, buoyed by economic requirements, see neutrality as an impediment to the growth of the Internet. Major telecommunication companies like Airtel have since December 2014 asked for payment for voice calls. The DoT report takes into account the supposed decline in revenue for telecom companies, following the ubiquity of companies like those behind Skype and WhatsApp.

The Indian report has attempted to differentiate between the ideas of an open Internet and net neutrality. The former is seen as a part of the latter. This distinction is tricky. While one can ensure neutrality, the openness of the Internet can still be regulated and controlled.

The contention over neutrality is contingent upon the operation of what are commonly known as over the top services (OTT), that is, companies that provide the content that make the Internet what it is. The demand of the telecommunication companies is that these OTTs be regulated and licensed. While constant technological advancement shifts users away from traditional calls, the TSPs are fearful that they will lose out. Airtel Zero was one such move. Websites that would tie up with the company would be given free access as part of the package offered, while those who weren’t would be throttled.

The counter argument as it emerged was that, as data packets were anyway being purchased, they were taking into account the usage. In India, we have specific video calling, instant messaging-friendly data packets that are already based on usage.

Several OTT companies have reaffirmed their faith in the principle of net neutrality. Shrenik Bhayani, country head of Unify, a German software company that provides IP voice features and has recently partnered with Beetel Teletech to have a more indirect presence in the country, told Hardnews: “The Internet really started as a flat, non-hierarchical network where every entity is treated the same. All the protocols built for the Internet also follow the same principle. This basic framework has accelerated the process for innovation and has in turn created opportunities.”

With licensing and regulating, this might change.

The government has maintained its stand on regulating OTTs. Regulating these companies will in turn benefit the telecom companies as per their demands. Infringement on the core functioning of the network companies is seen as legitimate because these companies’ profits are on shaky ground, thanks to the boom of mobile-based applications that employ voice calls, or VoIP.

The counter argument has been that, because the OTT providers and the consumers buy ‘packets’ – data plans and the like – they are already paying the companies for usage. Therefore, there shouldn’t be throttling or any similar difficulty in accessing these websites. The fear is that if the government panders to the telecom companies – that are essential to ensure a ‘Digital India’ – it may become difficult to negotiate a consumer-friendly definition of net neutrality. Telecom companies have not convincingly addressed this concern.

In an interview with a leading television channel, Rajan Mathews, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India, said that because the penetration of connectivity in India is very low – only about 19 per cent of the population uses the Internet – it is very important that all telecom companies follow a single set of regulations to smooth the process of connectivity throughout the country.

But applying the same regulation to OTTs will stifle creativity. Start-ups may not be able to have the same access that established brands have because the latter may be able to get around licensing.

With no consensus emerging, India’s ban-happy government may just end up regulating the Internet by issuing bans, as it tried to do recently with 857 pornographic sites, books and movies.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2015