India's telecom regulator is gearing up to change the relationship between the internet and its users. In a paper it put out last month, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India made it clear that it is all set to allow telecom companies to turn the internet from an all-you-can-eat buffet into an a la carte menu. Read Medianama's useful distillation of the paper here.
But the decision hasn't been made yet. TRAI's consultation paper also includes 20 questions posed to the industry and the general public, asking for comments on what India's internet regulation should look like. Since you are reading this on the internet, and probably want to continue using it, here's a primer on this policy that will affect all of our lives.
What is net neutrality?
If you started a blog or website tomorrow, you can be certain that people anywhere on the internet can reach that link just as easy as going to Google or Facebook. No matter how big or small, rich or poor you are, access to your little plot of space on the internet will be the same as anyone else's.
That's the idea of net neutrality. Whoever gives you access to the internet – a network like Airtel or MTNL – should treat all traffic on the internet impartially, i.e. be neutral. Anyone attempting to go to any website anywhere on the internet should be free to do so.
Does that mean the internet should be free?
No. Net neutrality advocates aren't asking for you to be given free data plans and to always have access to the internet. In India, as in most places, you pay money to access the internet. But once you have got that access, you should be able to go wherever you want online. If you've paid for 1 GB of internet surfing, it shouldn't matter if you were just looking at Wikipedia entries or watching YouTube videos or calling someone on Skype.
Give me an example of something that does not follow net neutrality.
You know those generous offers from telecom companies to give you free access to Twitter or Facebook? That's a violation of net neutrality. But how can something that comes to me for free be bad? It's not about what is free – it's about what's not.
Airtel or Reliance might offer Facebook to you for free but that means they're charging you for all the other social networks out there, and it's only possible because Facebook is a giant company that can strike a deal with them. Do you think Mark Zuckerberg could have done that when he was still in college and had just founded Facebook? If some Indian kid built a better social network than Facebook tomorrow, these offers make it almost impossible for her new app to succeed.
Still, they're giving it to us for free, why is that bad?
It's a slippery slope. Once you've breached the principles of net neutrality, it's hard to go back. If all traffic on the internet is not equal, anything goes. Right now it means free access to Facebook or Twitter via Airtel or Reliance. Tomorrow it might mean things that were somewhat free for you, like Skype or Whatsapp ("somewhat" free because you still have to pay for internet connections), might end up costing more if the telecom company feels like it.
That's exactly what happened with Airtel last year, when they tried to charge higher rates for people using Skype or Viber to make internet calls. Remember, these services don't use some different kind of service – voice calls on the internet are using the internet's pipes to transfer information in pretty much the same way as playing an online videogame does or taking a web video course. The 1s and 0s are basically the same.
So why are telecom companies against net neutrality?
Think of the voice call example carefully. Who loses out when you use a free service like Skype to make a call? Telecom companies, that's who. The companies claim they have spent all the money to build the infrastructure for your phone and internet networks, and now their profits are being taken away by apps like Skype.
Prepare to see the abbreviation OTT, which expands to Over The Top applications, because they sit on-top of existing internet cables, instead of having to build their own networks. Telecom companies believe OTT services, like Whatsapp and Skype and Uber, are getting all of the benefits of infrastructure that they didn't pay for.
Do the telecom companies have a point?
Depends on how you look at it. Telephony and data on the internet are treated differently by authorities. The government mandates a number of things for those who officially provide telephone services: they have to buy spectrum, maintain bank guarantees, expand into rural areas, ensure their customers can call phone users who are on other networks. Software companies, which is basically what OTT apps are, don't have to do any of this.
That seems unfair. But remember, telecom companies are telecom companies. They built the infrastructure to sell you access to that infrastructure, not to control what you do on it. Would you find it okay to be charged more for calling your chartered accountant as opposed to calling your mom, even if they lived next door? That's what telecom companies want to do with the internet: charge you more for different ways of using the same 1s and 0s.
So net neutrality is the way to go. Is there still a problem?
The telecom companies' revenues have been coming down because of the shift to digital apps, and they argue this will reduce their ability to expand access to the internet. Without revenues they can't build more infrastructure. This is true, but it is only as unfair as any industry that is hit by newer, better technologies.
Still, expanding digital access is an important concern, for the government, for the companies and for us. Breaking the internet by violating net neutrality, however, is no way to expand the internet. What would be the point?
Okay, okay, I'm convinced. What now?
Go read the reddit India thread on net neutrality. Visit Netneutrality.in, which will tell you how to lobby the prime minister. Sign the change.org petition, which already has 80,000 signatures, asking for net neutrality to be enforced. Go assist Medianama in their efforts to create responses to the TRAI consultation paper. Or go respond to TRAI yourself.