The Hazards of a Non-neutral Internet

Posted by Geetha Hariharan at Apr 18, 2015 09:00 PM |
Spurred by recent events, India’s policy circles are dancing to the complex tunes of net neutrality. Airtel came under fire for pricing calls made over the Internet differentially; it has since withdrawn this plan. Airtel and Reliance Communications are caught in the storm as Airtel Zero and, the Facebook-spearheaded product for low-cost Internet access, face stiff criticism for violating net neutrality. Companies like Flipkart, which earlier supported these products, have stepped back and are throwing their weight behind net neutrality. The Department of Telecommunications has set up a six-member panel to consult on net neutrality.

A modified version of the blog entry was published as an article titled "A must for free speech" in the Week on April 18, 2015

Responding to concerns, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released a consultation paper on OTT services on March 27, 2015. TRAI has called for public comments to be sent by April 24, 2015, and counter-comments to be sent by May 8, 2015. The TRAI consultation paper raises several crucial issues, including net neutrality. Given the heightened interest in the issue, let us two steps back and revisit the basics about net neutrality.

What is net neutrality?

In the simplest terms, net neutrality is the principle by which the carrier (telco/ISP like Reliance, Airtel) is prohibited from discriminating between any two ‘packets’ of data carried over its network. That is, ISPs ought not treat data packets differently, no matter what the content, source or price.

It follows, then, that when packets are given differential treatment, the principle of net neutrality is violated. As Centre for Internet and Society’s Sunil Abraham explains, differential treatment may occur in many ways: first, carriers may provide consumers with free access to certain websites or web content, while charging the sender or destination; second, ISPs may throttle traffic of one website/company to give it priority over other sites (the website will then load faster than others); third, ISPs may refuse access to some websites unless consumers or content-providers pay extra charges. Other violations abound too; this list is merely illustrative.

Diversity, Innovation & Competition: The Costs of Net Non-neutrality

Let us take zero-rating to explore the impacts of a net neutrality violation. In and Airtel Zero, companies like Facebook and Flipkart (prior to the latter’s withdrawal) pay to provide users with free access to their cluster of websites; these are examples of “zero-rating”. Telcos and content-providers like Facebook argue that this is crucial to expand Internet access in price-sensitive markets like India. While this is an important consideration, zero-rating can have detrimental impacts on free speech and diversity, competition and innovation. It can result in “walled gardens” and a diversity-trap, where the only sites we can access are the walled gardens of curated information compiled by Facebook and the like.

Today, we can access an unprecedented variety of content across freely accessible platforms. We pay for our Internet connections and for data, but the content we access is neither set nor monitored by ISPs or content-providers, unless legally mandated to do so under Section 69 of Information Technology Act, 2000. Our freedom to access and receive diverse information is not curated by the companies themselves (as Facebook would in or their ability to pay ISPs to carry traffic. But with zero-rating, preferential access or traffic throttling, content diversity will suffer.

Of course, impact of receding diversity of content may not be felt in the short term, if access is made the priority. However, if net non-neutrality is allowed to continue in perpetuity, this may result in corporate curation and censorship of content. Moreover, since established players can better shell out the money needed for zero-rated or prioritised access, new companies and start-ups may find their entry blocked. Such a possibility is vexing for innovation, as greater costs will disincentivise smaller players from entering the market. There is also an impact on competition: entrenched players who can afford to pay carriers will dig their heels deeper, and become the sole curators of content. This is censorship by market design.

Access and Self-preservation, say the Telcos

Some telecom operators and ISPs argue that zero-rating is essential for universal access to data services, a dream of the Digital India mission. They also stress that OTTs like Whatsapp, Viber, Skype and others are free-riding on their networks and usurping their revenue, since it is the telcos and not OTTs who pay licence fees and spectrum charges. Finally, telcos and ISPs say that treating packets differently is a form of network and traffic management; such management is crucial to an efficient and open Internet, and is an age-old practice of operators.

Of course, traffic and network management practices do exist, and operators do block or manage speeds during congestion periods or when there are security threats. As users, we also experience different Internet speeds depending on the hardware and software employed by operators, the time of day, the type of content accessed (video/ audio/ text), etc. As Christopher Yoo says, operators should be free to experiment with network management practices (‘network diversity’) so long as consumers and competition suffer no detriment.

But as reports show, net non-neutrality practices have negative impacts on speech diversity, innovation and competition, among others. Any proposal to grant legal recognition to net non-neutrality practices like zero-rating, traffic-prioritization or others, which depend on the consumer or content-provider’s ability to pay and result in differential treatment of data packets, must answer these concerns and provide safeguards. In Shreya Singhal, the Supreme Court affirmed the value of freedom of speech and diversity; saying that “…a culture of open dialogue is important”, the Court declared that “…we need to tolerate unpopular views”. Internet companies and telcos provide the platforms to make such views available. Through traffic prioritization and zero-rating, and by chilling innovation and competition, net neutrality violations can stifle speech diversity. The Department of Telecom and TRAI must remember this when debating a net neutrality regulation.