Picture a dystopian future, where companies are allowed total control over the Internet and web based entrepreneurs with amazing ideas have no chances of success. All other websites are oppressed by big corporations that have paid Telecom companies to favor them. Telecom companies decide whose ideas prosper on the Internet and whose don’t.
If that isn’t enough, in this future, telecom companies can get even more money by charging internet users for every service you use. In this world, services like Skype and Viber no longer offer video calls for free.
Sounds scary doesn’t it? This is a world without Net Neutrality.
Net Neutrality is the principle that all content and websites on the Internet are equal and must be treated equally. Telecom companies want to change this for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, in a hypothetical scenario, Airtel (an Indian telecom company) could charge Amazon to make Amazon’s website load faster. Amazon could also ask Airtel to make the websites of all other online retailers to load slower than theirs, so that the user gets frustrated and uses Amazon.
Secondly, also a hypothetical scenario, Airtel could charge users more for using data on particular services like Voice over IP (VoIP) services. This would mean expensive Skype calls to keep in touch with your loved ones who live abroad.
Zero-rating, another practice that goes against Net Neutrality, is when a company pays for data use by a company for the user. The company pays the Telecom company to make access to its content free for the user. This makes the user inclined to only access that website’s content rather than any other website’s content.
Internet.org by Facebook is a similar idea which aims to provide free access to a limited range of websites to people who would otherwise be unable to use the Internet. In order to access any other website, the user has to pay. The problem here is that Facebook has the ability to control what people get to use for free and therefore are the gatekeepers of the Internet. Facebook could easily block out any competitors, like Google Plus, at will.
Companies behind such projects have been trying to broaden the definition of Net Neutrality to simply mean “Everyone being able to access the internet”, so that they don’t appear to violate it.
Laws protecting Net Neutrality have been passed in countries like Brazil, US, Netherlands, etc. but there is still a long way to go before complete Net Neutrality is achieved.
Recently in India, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) opened itself to comments on the consultation paper. TRAI has been accused of trying to bury the document from the public by making the link to the document unavialable while being hidden in a pile of other links below a large slideshow with distracting images. The document’s convoluted name is “Consultation Paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services”, and is 118 pages long. They conveniently set a short deadline of under 29 days to get enough responses. Because of the activists who raised awareness of the deadline, TRAI received around 1 million comments from the public. They later released the email addresses of everyone who wrote to them, exposing them to spammers.
The absence of net neutrality will definitely benefit the telecom companies while at the same time harm the market by unleashing monopolistic tendencies. Telecom companies don’t want to be dumb pipes that just transfer data. However, the cost of their ambition will be the loss of the Internet’s openness.