Net neutrality, the principle that all traffic should be treated equally regardless of content or source, can be hard to pin down.
Its best-known manifestation is the presumption that Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) shouldn’t be able to charge higher fees for big data using services like YouTube or WhatsApp, as it would kill new competition from new incumbents unable to pay the higher fees.
The debate has been driven in the US where it quickly became divided on party lines – Republican Vs. Democrat. Interventionist or Laissez Faire. If you’re pro, you see it as integral to maintaining the free and open nature of the web. If you’re against, then it’s just another example of market meddling.
More cynical observers have viewed the argument in the US as corporate and political opportunism. A battle for competitive advantage between ISPs and web services and material to fuel the partisan battle over government regulation.
The debate has moved to India and appears to have taken on a guise that doesn’t fit the US paradigm. Internet.org, Facebook’s not-for-profit initiative to drive Internet access in developing markets has come under fire.
Launched in February, Internet.org provides free access to key web services via “zero-rating”, where selected apps are provided without charge.
Net neutrality lobby group Save the Internet.In says “Facebook” is using the initiative to monopolize consumers under the cover of philanthropic intent. Zero rating, the group says, gives selected apps a clear unfair advantage. Why should one company have the power to determine which apps people can or cannot access?
Zuckerberg has hit back at criticism, saying that the initiative, which strives to remove barriers to connectivity, does not violate the principle. Apps are decided on the basis of decisions made by local stakeholders. Facebook is not looking to “prevent people accessing other services” or “stop anyone from joining.” Pointedly, he suggests that arguments about net neutrality should not be used to prevent access to those that have none.
This seems reasonable. Framing net neutrality in terms of is it really philanthropy is arguably a strained interpretation of a discussion, which has centred on the relationship between ISP’s and streaming web services.
In truth, the argument in India has been going for some time and in not dissimilar vein to elsewhere. Indian Telecoms companies feel over the top services (meaning Whatsapp et al) are under regulated and undermine their traditional revenues from texts and phone calls.
Amidst a background of dissent, the Telecoms regulator released a public ‘Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services’. The net neutrality question looms large and has galvanised public interest. According to reports, the regulator has received over a million emails in its defence.
The deadline for feedback is today. We will have to see whether India’s policy makers follow the US decision to back the principal or take a different path. As a recent gathering of experts in Delhi found, the issue raises problematic choices about consumer choice, competition, capacity and principle, which can bely a clear-cut answer.
Whatever the outcome, the prominence and ferocity of debate are surely a sign of the country’s flourishing tech sector. 2015 has already seen record investment and Morgan Stanley predicts connectivity will rise from 300 to approaching 520 million users by 2018.
Perhaps it is a sense of pride in an emerging domestic tech sector that helps explain why Facebook became such a focal point in the public debate.
Photo Credit: SavetheInternet.in