A couple of years ago when social media giant Facebook introduced Free Basics — a zero-rated service — aimed at providing select websites free of cost, TRAI threw a spanner by arguing that it was trying to create a walled garden of free websites, thereby violating the concept of net neutrality.
For the first time, common people in India came to know of this term and seemed to hotly debate net neutrality and its importance for maintaining a free democratic space. Later, a year after its launch, the social networking giant pulled the plug on Free Basics in India – a move that was warmly welcomed by supporters of net neutrality that argued that although the idea behind Free Basics might have been noble, it would have created an unhealthy competition among big internet operators, who might have tried to act as gatekeepers of the internet by trying to tie up with data operators.
Nonetheless, this debate generated several interesting questions for us to ponder. What is net neutrality? Why is it important? What happens when there is no net neutrality? In this article, we take up some of these burning issues:
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality at a conceptual level means that internet providers will provide equal access to all content and applications available on the net without privileging one over the other. In simple terms, this means that service providers should not slide some websites and applications in the ‘fast lane’ while blocking or slowing down some other websites.
How old is the concept of net neutrality?
While in India, the concept may have been new, but in the US, the controversy dates to the Nineties. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) spent years under both Bush and Obama, trying to introduce net neutrality protections. After a series of legal defeats, the FCC passed a sweeping order in 2015 protecting net neutrality. However, the Republican-dominated FCC soon voted to strike down the order, thereby giving broadband service providers a free hand in blocking the free internet space. Currently, the topic is still hotly debated in the United States as well as the world over.
What are the arguments in favour of net neutrality?
Supporters of net neutrality forward a couple of strong pointers:
They argue that the space of the internet is essentially a free democratic space open to all and can be accessed by all. Internet today has become the primary mode of dissemination of information. People across the world log in to the net to get their daily dose of information and entertainment. However, net neutrality supporters argue that if net neutrality is not protected then a handful of big broadband owners will decide what may be accessed on the net.
Secondly, it is also said that net neutrality is crucial for innovation. The digital space is constantly spawning innovation and new companies. However, if there is no net neutrality and if data service providers are allowed to take sides, then this might seriously affect innovation. For example, if video streaming platforms were not allowed to thrive, we would not have some major video streaming platforms today.
Similarly, experts argue that some data service providers might give preferential treatment to a bigger company. As such, smaller companies may never be able to showcase their content to consumers. In the USA, for example, some data service providers slowed down some video content, before the FCC ruled in favour of net neutrality.
The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of net neutrality even more. Last year, as we were all cooped up in our homes, the internet was our primary source of information. Experts argue that in a democracy, free internet, much like the free press is the key. As such, net neutrality is crucial in the digital age.
What are the arguments against net neutrality?
Every coin has two sides, so does an argument. There are opponents of net neutrality as well. This group, typically, includes internet service providers, computer hardware manufacturers, economists, and telecom operators. Their main concerns are the following:
1, Net neutrality reduces competition in the market. One of the key pillars of a capitalist economy is fair competition. The idea behind this is that competition is healthy as it makes manufacturers more careful of the quality of their products and services and helps in making prices competitive. However, if there is no competition, data service providers will have very little incentive in research and development and product innovation.
2, Secondly, net neutrality may also make the internet a very expensive space, which can leave behind a lot of poor people in developing nations from the digital purview. As such this might broaden the digital divide between those who have the access to the net and those who do not have access.
Net neutrality and the digital divide
Hearing both sides of the argument, one can safely conclude that while net neutrality is important, governments across the world must work together with private players (data service providers and telecom companies) to reduce the digital divide and make the internet available to all.
In today’s world, the digital divide refers to the demographics and the geographies that have access to the internet and those that don’t. An open internet policy does, in part, threaten to make the space of the internet so expensive that it remains out of bounds for poor consumers. This may seem like a reason strong enough in favour of the availability of zero-rated services, in which the world’s biggest search engines, messaging platforms and social media sites pay network providers money to fast track their content. However, one must be careful before stretching this argument too far as, underneath this apparent benevolence, unhealthy competition and monopoly may get a free hand, thereby damaging the digital space forever.