The Internet has become so ubiquitous in our lives that we hardly marvel at getting onto the information super-highway with the click of a mouse or a poke at a touch-screen to access the global village. We think of an almost utopian world in cyber space, where everybody is equal and meet on equal terms at a virtual village square. In particular, the people of Northeast India have much to thank the Internet for mitigating the geographical isolation of the region. This Net access is growing stronger with the extension of mobile telephony networks in the NE states. But all good things come to an end, and the Internet may no longer be an exception to this iron rule. Designed at the height of Cold War to withstand nuclear attacks, the Internet is a robust if diffused entity — capable of passing information through one or the other branch even if other branches are knocked out. But now a threat much stronger is looming before the Internet. It is in the shape of a corporate world determined to see and extract profit everywhere. Whether in the United States, Europe or in India, the corporate world is now determined to slice up the Internet into many internets, on the basis of free and paid services. This is sought to be done by destroying one of the most prized characteristics of the Internet — its neutrality.
The alarm in our country has been set off due to intense lobbying by telecom companies like Airtel and Vodafone with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to allow them to block apps and websites so as to extract more money from consumers and businesses. Airtel, the country’s largest mobile operator with over 20 crore active subscribers, announced plans on December 25 last year to charge customers extra for using services like Skype, Viber and Google Hangouts, even though they had already paid for Internet access. The proposed platform ‘Airtel Zero’ was to give customers ‘free’ access to websites and certain apps, as long as their internet service providers paid higher rates to Airtel. The customer may believe it to be an attractive offer to access Facebook’s Internet.org or shop at Flipkart at zero data charge, but he will not be able to access other websites which have no tie-ups with Airtel. Since these other websites can be accessed only with a ‘paid’ data package, turally the customer will avoid them and be ignorant about the services and facilities they offer. If established websites do exclusive deals with internet service providers, they will be accessed by customers — while blocking out newer entrants and startups with far less funding. After a huge outcry, Airtel backed down, saying it will await the TRAI’s report on a consultation paper about Net neutrality. Following the controversy, Flipkart walked out of Airtel Zero while other brands such as Cleartrip and NDTV pulled out of similar arrangements with Facebook’s Internet.org. Activists have argued that ‘zero rating’ or making some sites free over others, is a blatant violation of Net neutrality. They have pointed out that the Internet is built on principles of openness and freedom, and at the core of this is non-discrimition at the internet service provider (ISP) level.
If we think of a neutral Internet as a public utility like electricity, then so long as the customer pays a flat rate in terms of units consumed, the ISP should have no say in the matter as the power company. What the customer does with the data he has paid for, sending a WhatsApp message, making a Skype call or watching a YouTube video is entirely his lookout. Why should his internet service provider have the power to prioritise certain websites over others? Telecom companies like Airtel are arguing that extremely popular apps like WhatsApp and Skype are data guzzlers that clog up the networks, making it uneconomic for telecom companies to provide other internet-based services. Telecom companies also have serious issue with the supposedly high prices of spectrum in India, as well as the licence fees, spectrum and microwave charges and service taxes eating up around 30 per cent of their annual revenues. Whatever be the merit of these arguments, it is alarming to think of internet services in future to come in differentially priced ‘packs’ like cable TV. If equal accessibility of all sites, same data cost for accessing each site, same speed of access and other aspects of Net neutrality are jettisoned, can the days of internet selectivity and even censorship be far off? The TRAI is now seeking public opinion with a list of 20 questions by April 24 next. All eyes are therefore on the rendra Modi government which will take a call on Net neutrality after the Department of Telecommunications and the TRAI submit their reports in the first week of May. The Internet's success in fostering innovation, access to knowledge and freedom of speech is in large part due to this principle of Net neutrality. All concerned citizens must therefore strive to keeping the Internet a level-playing field.