Chandrakant 'CK' Isi
16th Apr 2015
A few days ago, Indian telecom-giant Airtel introduced 'Airtel Zero' plan. According to the company, this service will enable customers to access select mobile applications for free. In a country where majority of population still can't afford Internet plans, this sounds like a very good idea. But then, why are so many people crying foul about it? And, what is this Net Neutrality mumbo-jumbo they are talking about?
'Airtel Zero' Plan
To understand why it is bad, let's find out how 'Airtel Zero' works. Since users get free access to select apps and Airtel is not charity, it is the app developers who sustain the cost. Suppose you regularly buy products from Flipkart and Shopclues. A big fish like Flipkart wouldn't mind spending money to promote its business — for them Aitel's charges would be a pocket change. However, other online retailers may not be able to sustain that cost. Airtel states that the charges involved would be 1/3rd compared to the digital marketing channels. However, what if all telcos jump on the bandwagon? Most app makers would not afford to pay each and every operator for free access. In this case, consumers will favour Flipkart simply because you don't have to pay anything at all to access its app. This will also put telcos in a strong position where they can dictate terms with content/service websites based on their userbase.
Understanding Net Neutrality
Unlike real world, Internet is open. No other medium protects free speech like Internet. For this to work, service providers should provide open networks. They shall not discriminate or favour any content or service, so that all websites/apps/ services get a fair chance to compete. If ISPs (Internet Service Providers) get paid by content or app providers, its partners will get unfair advantage over the competition. Some telcos would not mind throttling competing apps and services to "support" their partners. Some might go on to blocking views and opinions based on financial ties. And that will clearly destroy the open Internet, which is the last fort when it comes to the free speech.
Internet Without It
If Indian parents keen on deciding your life-partner wasn't enough, telcos will influence your online behaviour. Big businesses will tie-up with operators and gain millions of users, while small companies will struggle to compete. App/service industry is currently driven by innovations. This is how a small start-up like WhatsApp managed to become one of the biggest messaging platform in the world. Without net neutrality, deep pockets will get an edge over innovations. For instance, Airtel (run by Bharti Mittal) can give unfair advantage to Hike messaging app founded by Bhrati Mittal's son Kavin Mittal. If you ask a WhatsApp user to switch to Hike, he won't. However, if you make him/her pay for WhatsApp while offering Hike for free, the person will likely to switch.
Not just app makers, things can also get difficult for us. Assume a fictional situation in India where a billionaire 'A' owns a telecom company on which many people "rely" on. The rich guy's company has mutual relations with minister 'M' of the political party 'B'. Now instead of giving open access to all websites, billionaire 'A' can limit bandwidth for websites that criticise minister 'M'. You know where it is going now.
How Do I Support Net Neutrality?
Netizens have taken it to social networks to defend net neutrality. Even influential figures such as Shah Rukh Khan and Aravind Kejriwal are in for open Internet.
TRAI has published consultation papers titled 'Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services'. You can download the document by clicking this link. The authority asks 20 critical questions. You can send in your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those too lazy to draft a message can simply go to savetheinternet.in and follow the instructions.
Do make your opinion count. Otherwise, next time, this page may not load properly on some Internet service.
Net Neutrality: Should You Fight For It?
Find out why net neutrality is so important and why should you defend it.
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