“FREEEEDOMMM!!”— shouts William Wallace (Mel Gibson) in the movie Braveheart just before being ‘split into 2 pieces’ (read: beheaded) at the end, while fighting for his country Scotland’s freedom.
Nowadays, a thought-provoking debate is on about ‘(Inter)net neutrality.’ It simply means that a consumer chooses how she uses her data and the Internet Service Provider (ISP) won’t have any say in it. She could browse Facebook, use WhatsApp for messaging or use Skype to call a certain someone in another continent. The ISPs can’t boost some services while restricting the speed of others. The ISPs can’t charge separately for certain (popular or not) apps or services — the normal thing that has been going on since the dark ages of the internet.
Why do they want a non-neutral internet?
Now, with this renaissance of mobile internet — it making a foray into the highest bracket for internet usage, and various instant messaging & Voice over IP (VoIP) services (WhatsApp, Viber, Skype etc.) becoming a norm, the SMS revenues that telecom operators generated have reduced by a great margin and voice call revenues have started being hit — or at least that’s what they claim. At the same time, their revenues from data services have increased dramatically but not by so much in absolute terms. As a consequence, they now want to charge separately for various services like WhatsApp, Facebook, Viber and more. It’s analogous to them possessing a cake with an icing, and yet expecting another layer of icing. In clichéd but simpler terms, “they want to make more money”.
Kavin Bharti Mittal — head of strategy/new product development at BhartiSoftBank — who is also son of Bharti Enterprises chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal, accepted in 2013 that they had started planning to generate revenues from data-plans. Their and other telecom operators’ plans have been made visible in the form of a proposal of a closed/regulated/split internet. But to put such power in a few hands that decide the fate of a billion hands just doesn’t add up. Even if telecom operators/ISPs are losing money it doesn’t mean they can start shaking the foundations on which internet stands today. New and efficient technologies will continue being invented, which is natural.
“…Nature itself is the physical referent we use to prove our science, and it is a set system emerging only from our increased understanding of it. It has no regard for what you subjectively think or believe to be true. Rather, it gives you an option: You can learn and fall in line with its natural laws and conduct yourself accordingly, invariably creating good health and sustainability; OR you can go against the current to no avail. Nature is a dictatorship.”
This shaking/changing of the foundations of internet is going against the natural current. Those who adapt to the changing technologies and not force the technologies to adapt to their models would survive. It’s not hard to imagine one telecom operator coming out in the open claiming to provide neutral internet service without discrimination. It would generate sustainability not only for itself, but also for its customers (a number that would thus increase) and others.
The consultation paper
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recently released a consultation paper that seeks answers from us consumers as to why we think we deserve an open internet. Two immediate thoughts popped up on learning about this paper.
First: “Why do they (TRAI) even want to consult with us?” There should not be any regulation or extra charges. Internet has remained and should always remain ‘neutral.’ This is a funny term in a way. It may not even have been invented if it were not for the profit-seeking operators trying to have things their way. We’re innocent consumers who are just looking for a way to communicate, collaborate, stay connected and learn. Don’t disempower us. Remember, if we are disempowered, women are also disempowered. And nowadays, there’s a lot of women empowerment talk!
Second: “Who lobbied TRAI?” If this thing becomes clear, a lot could be revealed and more questions could be raised. We hope to have a healthy debate.
Back to the first line of this text—“FREEEEDOMMM!!”— shouts William Wallace (Mel Gibson) in the movie Braveheart just before being ‘split into 2 pieces’ (read: beheaded) at the end while fighting for Scotland’s freedom. Some(most?) customers are shouting the same for Internet that it has become or will become in the near future. They do not want the internet to be split into 2 pieces of ‘fast and slow’ lanes. They want to exercise their choice in choosing what to do with their data ‘bits’ and not being put under a restriction, being charged separately or deliberately being fed data slowly for using certain websites/apps/services.
What do internet corporations/businesses have to say?
While this is what most of the consumers say, there are internet companies indirectly and inconspicuously vouching for de-neutralisation of internet. They partner with various ISPs and operators paying them money to provide services under specialized plans.
A simple question arises: Why do these businesses agree to pay? The answer: it is to increase their user base. But there’s more to the story. When the user base will get big enough, and people won’t have a lot of alternatives, these internet companies might stop paying to the operators. This would affect operators’ and ISPs’ revenues and then they will have no choice but to force us consumers to pay more and we will have to comply simply because there may not be alternatives. (Here’s an economic reason why competition is good and monopoly bad!) Ultimately — in the long run — it will be we the consumers that face the burden. To put in another way, this is blackmail/extortion disguised as a fee. They are usurping a right (or a need) from us consumers that now sits at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And those who do understand Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs would know that needs are no luxury.
Now, with the Internet of Things (IOT) coming up when everything you could image would be connected, internet neutrality becomes utmost important. We need to protect it and defend its openness and neutrality. This needs to be done right now and with all the vigour that we have because if de-neutralised internet becomes a norm, it would be harder to turn it back than it is now to defend a neutral internet.
But let’s say, and this is unfortunate to say, the internet does finally become non-neutral. What would it do, in layman terms, to a layman? He would have to avail different internet plans to access to certain services—a separate WhatsApp plan, a Skype plan and the like. He would face ‘positive discrimination’ wherein an operator may favour one service over another and boost its speed while restricting that of others. This is great power in the hands of telecom operators and ISPs. Just think of it this way, if you will. There’s someone who uses internet only to watch porn. They may have to take a separate porn-plan to do so. I bet it would be extremely costly and outright weird!
TimBL’s reddit AMA
Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s (guess who that is!) only a month ago had a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) session. A Reddit user asked him about his views/thoughts/feelings on net neutrality and he responded: “Net neutrality is really important. Basically we do so much cool stuff on top of the network layer, it has to remain an unbiased infrastructure for all our discussion, innovation, etc. I must have the right to be able to communicate with whatever or whoever I want, without discrimination, be it political or commercial.” Tim then asks to refer to this link and a guest blog he wrote for examples, in which he also cites: “ Research commissioned by the Dutch government in June 2013 showed that net neutrality stimulates a virtuous circle between more competition, lower prices, higher connectivity and greater innovation, benefiting all citizens, as well as internet companies large and small.”
Another user asked him “What is the single most valuable thing I can do on an individual level to help defend the open internet?” and TimBL replied: “Great question. Keep asking that question. Don’t take it for granted. Keep an eye on the situation in your town, your country, your company. In each year of using it, spend some time with others working or writing or lobbying or protesting as needed to keep it open.” When such a big name—the inventor of the World Wide Web—says things like this, they must be considered with great thought.
The sad part
As it happens, lobbyists might just get their thing done to suit telecom operators’ ways and have an upper hand. A ‘little’ fast money to the tunes of a few crores might be gifted for splitting up the internet in ‘fast and slow’ lanes—where certain services/apps by companies that pay-up would be fast while others slow, or certain services/apps might be provided free of cost while others might have to be paid for, which is against internet neutrality. Egos might rise and clash causing sparks that would eventually die down giving way to a regulated and costly internet. Idea’s IIN internet advertisement campaign would drastically fail. No one would be from IIN any long.
The middle ground?
They say TRAI is trying to reach a middle ground between the consumers and the telecom operators and ISPs. Hey ISPs! There is no middle ground. If decreasing profits are eating into your day to day operations and if bearing the brunt of the changing times and technology seems too much, please shut shop! But we know that’s not the case. There are several sources (here, here and here) which confirm the increasing revenues/profits of yours. The story is as simple as this: as the number of subscribers/users of your data services increase, data usage will increase further leading to higher revenues. So don’t give us that crying face of loss-making. If you want to have your cake and eat it too, then that’s not gonna happen!
An interesting comment on this ongoing debate goes something like this:
“To the telcos! Your managers are slow! Hire new ones! Because technology will now change only faster! We bet you won’t be able to catch up. You will want to retaliate by regulating things that deserve freedom. History has it, and let us bring it forth as a refresher. Whenever hands were tied and people tortured, a revolution rose so uncontrollable that even the mightiest fell. And if that (regulation/extra charges/hand tying/torturing) ever happens, here’s a little something. Not a threat but an observation. You can close all the doors for us, we’ll still find a way. We haven’t sent telegram in a long time.”