The debate on unhampered access to the internet is a complex one, and should be approached only after we’ve understood aspects of the country’s regulatory climate and internet services market
Net Neutrality” is the new buzzword. Particularly in the world’s most populous democracy that has a penchant for jargon. That too, right after the United States’ Federal Communications Commission has published the “Open internet Order” to adopt net neutrality as formal policy in that country, and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India seeking public comments on a consultative paper.
What exactly is “net neutrality”? It has come to mean different things to different people — much like the story of the blind men and the elephant. What the US FCC has adopted as its version of net neutrality would be instructive to understand the concept. Essentially, net neutrality entails the law governing internet access containing prohibitions on blocking, throttling and paid prioritisation in terms of ease of access to the use of the internet. It also entails transparent terms of access to the internet, mobile phones and fixed landlines.
Therefore, a broadband service provider would need to be prohibited from blocking or slowing down the access to specific applications used on the internet. It would mean a prohibition on “hoarding” broadband speed and creating “fast lanes” requiring specific sources of content to pay more for internet access by customers. What would this translate into in simpler English? Essentially, it means a ban on unreasonable discrimination in accessing the internet.
For example, a broadband service provider cannot block access to content that is not legally banned. Let’s say India’s Daughter had not been banned — your internet broadband service provider would not be entitled to make a value judgement and impose a ban of his own. Likewise, the broadband provider cannot discriminate against internet traffic on the basis of who generated it. For example, a competitor to Star TV providing internet access cannot prevent access to Star Sports’ internet coverage of the Cricket World Cup even while Twitter updates of the same tournament would be available. Likewise, a broadband provider cannot charge Star Sports an extra fee to speed up streaming of coverage of the Cricket World Cup or to slow down access to Twitter updates on the matches.
While the intended principle is laudable, one should also guard against the medicine becoming more painful than the ailment. The US FCC had a deeply divided resolution when it adopted its net neutrality order. Three out of five commissioners voted for it while the remaining two voted against. One of them, Indian American Ajit Pai is a publicly vocal advocate of market forces being good enough to guard against unreasonable discrimination.
The internet is the public infrastructure on which many a new business enterprise has been built. It has been an egalitarian leveller of the marketplace by demolishing entry barriers to competition. Imposing hurdles on speed of access to the internet by small start-ups would entrench the big boys and prevent disruptive competition. Yet, the business of providing internet access is itself a competitive market, although one would need a license to get into this business.
In India, the proposal of an internet access provider to charge for usage of a free communication platform that only needs Wi-Fi connection and circumvents the need for a mobile communication platform, has sparked off a raging controversy on whether this country is violating net neutrality. If this were offensive to customers of that service provider, they could always shift to another provider who does not impose such charges, retaining the same mobile number. If multiple service providers get into a cartel to impose such charges, the competition regulator could step in and impose crippling penalties on members of the cartel.
Likewise, net neutrality does not mean there can be no discrimination at all among customers — a customer who is willing to pay for a better spectrum or a higher broadband speed gets that even today. So long as any customer is allowed to sign up to the package, there is no case for a ban. Killing discrimination absolutely would mean killing competition among service providers. Neutrality can only mean that no discrimination should be unreasonable and arbitrary. It necessarily entails a subjective regulatory judgement and can present morality choices like the one between smoking up in a prayer hall, and praying even when smoking up. Complex.
(This article was published in the Mumbai Mirror, Pune Mirror, Ahmedabad Mirror and Bangalore Mirror on April 16, 2015)