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Multiple Aspects Need to be Addressed as the Clamour Grows for Network Neutrality

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Apr 16, 2015 01:33 PM |
In the global debate there are four violations of Network Neutrality that are considered particularly egregious.

The article was published in DNA on April 16, 2015.


One — blocking of destinations or services in order to force the consumer to pay extra charges for access, two — not charging or zero-rating of certain destinations and services with or without extraction of payment from the sender or destination, and three — throttling or prioritisation of traffic between competing destinations or services and four — specialised services wherein the very same Internet infrastructure is used to provide non-Internet but IP based services such as IP-TV.

The main harms of network neutrality violations are as follows: one, censorship by private parties without legal basis; two, innovation harms because the economic threshold for new entrants is raised significantly; three, competition harms as monopolies become more entrenched and then are able to abuse their dominant position; four, harms to diversity because of the nudge effect that free access to certain services and destinations has on consumers reducing the infinite plurality of the Internet to a set of menu options. The first and fourth harm could result in the Internet being reduced to a walled garden.

It is insufficient to try and address this with networking rules for engineers such as “all packets should be treated equally.” But a set of principles could be developed that can help us grow access without violating network neutrality. Wikimedia Foundation has already developed their principles which they call “Wikipedia Zero Operating Principles”. In India our principles could include the following. One, no blocking without legal basis. Two, transparency — all technical and commercial arrangements are to be disclosed to the public. Three, non-exclusivity — all arrangements should be available to all parties, no special deals for those you favour. Four, non-discrimination between equals — technologies and entities that are alike should be treated alike. Five, necessity — whilst some measure may be required occasionally when there is network congestion they should be rolled back in a time-bound fashion.

Once these principles are enforced through a network neutrality regulation, ISPs and telecom operators will be allowed to innovate with business and payment models. Steve Song, inventor of Village Telco says “My preferred take on zero-rating would be to zero-rate gprs/edge data in general so that there is a minimum basic access for all.” My colleague Pranesh Prakash says “One possibility, of many, is to create a single marketplace or exchange for zero-rating, through which one can zero-rate on all telecom networks for standard tiered rates that they publish, and terms that are known to the regulator. Banning is akin to a brahmastra in a regulator's arsenal: it should not be used lightly” Jochai Ben-Avie of Mozilla told me yesterday of experiments in Bangladesh where consumers watch an advertisement everyday in exchange for 5Mb of data. My own suggestion to address the harms caused by walled gardens would be to make them leak – mandate that unfettered access to the Internet be provided every other hour.

There is many other ways in which the Internet has been transformed in India and other countries but these are not commonly considered network neutrality violations. Here are some examples.  One, blocking of port 25 — a port that is commonly used to relay email spam. Two, blocking of port 80 – so that domestic connections cannot be used to host web servers. Three, the use of private IP addresses, ISPs who are delaying migration to IPv6 infrastructure because of cost implications leverage their IPv4  address inventory by using Carrier Grade — Network Address Translators [CG-NATs].  Four, asymmetric connections where download speeds for consumers are faster than upload speeds. With the exception of the first example — all of them affect end users negatively but do not usually impact corporations and therefore have been  unfortunately sidelined in the global debate.

The TRAI consultation paper reveals many of the concerns of the telecom operators that go beyond the scope of network neutrality. Many of these concerns are very legitimate. There is a scarcity of spectrum  — this could partially be addressed by auctioning more spectrum, scientific management of spectrum, promotion of shared spectrum and unlicensed spectrum. Their profit margins are thinning – this could be addressed by dismantling the Universal Service Obligation Fund, it is after all as Rohan Samarajiva puts it “a tax on the poor.” Internet companies don't pay taxes – this could be addressed by the Indian government, by adopting the best practices from the OECD around preventing tax avoidance. But some of their concerns cannot be addressed because of the technological differences between telecom and Internet networks. While it is relatively easy to require telecom companies to provide personal information and allow for interception of communications, those Internet companies that use end-to-end encryption cannot divulge personal information or facilitate interception because it is technologically impossible. While the first two concerns could be addressed by TRAI, the last two should be addressed by other ministries and departments in the Indian government.

There are other concerns that are much more difficult to address without the deep understanding of latest advancements in radio communication, signal processing and congestion control techniques in packet switched networks. A telecom expert who did not wish to be identified told me that “even 2G TDM voice is 10 to 15 times more efficient when compared to VOIP. IP was developed to carry data, and is therefore not an efficient mode to carry voice as overhead requirement for packets destroys the efficiency on voice. Voice is best carried close to the physical layer where the overheads are lowest.” He claims that since “VOIP calls are spectrally inefficient they should be discouraged” through differential pricing. We need accessible scientific literature and monitoring infrastructure so that an evidence base around concerns like this can be created so as to address them effectively through regulatory interventions.

You know you have reached a policy solution when all concerned stakeholders are equally unhappy. Unfortunately, the TRAI consultation paper assumes that Internet companies operate in a regulatory vacuum and therefore places much unnecessary focus on the licensing of these companies. This is a disastrous proposal since the Internet today is the result of “permission-less innovation”. The real issue is network neutrality and one hopes that after rigorous debate informed by scientific evidence TRAI finds a way to spread unhappiness around equally.


The author works for the Centre for Internet and Society which receives funds from Wikimedia Foundation which has zero-rating alliances with telecom operators in many countries across the world.

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