Freedom struggle 2.0

by Pranesh Prakash last modified Apr 27, 2015 01:23 AM
In the face of the debate on net neutrality, here is a look at the consequences of not having a free, equal, and private internet.
Freedom struggle 2.0

Activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India shout anti-government slogans as they protest in support of net neutrality in New Delhi.

The article was published in the Hindu on April 25, 2015. Pranesh Prakash gave his inputs.

There has been so much noise surrounding net neutrality (generously helped along by All India Bakchod’s explanatory video) that by now even my technology-abhorring grandmother knows something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

However, let us recap: net neutrality refers to a free and open Internet that lets us utilise every channel of communication without bias or — heaven forbid — having to pay extra dough. Paid sites and subscriptions excluded of course; the owners have to send their kids to college, you know. As to the Importance of net neutrality, it is “... a democratic principle (in line with the right to equality in our Constitution) and it is important for freedom of speech and expression,” says Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society.

“Evolving technologies cannot be regulated” was one of the opening lines of Almost Human, a science fiction/crime series that did not survive its debut season. A profound statement, especially in the light of the blistering debate over net neutrality. A debate that has the Twitterati frothing at the mouth and primed to spew sarcasm at those against them in what is being perceived as a battle of epic proportions. Sample these: @Roflindian: What if this net neutrality debate was a clever ploy by telcos to merrily push up rates? And we’ll be like — anything for net freedom! @GabbbarSingh: Someone should launch a start-up just to announce its support to #NetNeutrality “We at Random-Word-with-no-vowels support #NetNeutrality”. @madversity: Net Neutrality has become so popular in Delhi in just three days Aunties want to know where it is available so they can wear it for Karva Chauth.

The battle for net neutrality, in India at least, looks to have exacerbated suddenly in the past few weeks. In truth, however, the issue has been brewing for quite a while, fanned by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) penchant for preparing sheaves of rules and regulations, sundry disputes and discourses by the Reddit demigods and anyone who owns a blog or a YouTube channel, the Bitcoin mafia’s complacent insistence on being the saviour of the web as we know it, and the rumours and filtered nuggets of news surrounding Google’s plans for a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO).

Here, then, are the main antagonists of our piece: telecom company Airtel (post its announcement of the ostensibly unpopular Airtel Zero plan, so much so that the CEO decided to grace Airtel’s users with an e-mail to “clear the air”) and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) that has taken to pitting Davids (consumers) against Goliaths (telecom companies) by floating a paper (subject to discussion and a cannonade of indignant e-mails) containing “some of the strangest and some ridiculously biased statements”, as Nikhil Pahwa succinctly put it in a MediaNama piece.

According to Airtel’s CEO, their “vision is to have every Indian on the Internet. There are millions of Indians who think that the Internet is expensive and do not know what it can do for them… We know that if we allow them to experience the joys of the Internet they will join the digital revolution.” Noble thought, but the sentiment is marred by the sordid matter of blunt. “Airtel Zero is a technology platform that connects application providers to their customers for free. The platform allows any content or application provider to enrol on it so their customers can visit these sites for free. Instead of charging customers we charge the providers who choose to get on to the platform.” In effect, restricting the freedom of the consumer to choose what site he/she wishes to use.

And I wish telecoms would stop bandying about the word “free” like confetti at a wedding. ‘100 free SMSes per day! Only at Rs. 50 a month!’ Well, I’m still losing Rs. 50, aren’t I? Why would you insult my intelligence by telling me my 100 SMSes are free then? “Customers are free to choose which website they want to visit, whether it is toll free or not. If they visit a toll free site they are not charged for data. If they visit any other site normal data charges apply.” Well, pray tell us plebians, Mr. CEO, since companies like Flipkart, NDTV and others have already abandoned the Airtel Zero ship, and a Google probably mightn’t consider coming aboard, having bigger fish to fry (i.e. its MVNO plans), does not your unequal treatment of these websites go against the very backbone of net neutrality?

The debate on net neutrality has more far-reaching consequences, however, than just having to shell out extra to exchange annoying Whatsapp group messages all day long or Skyping with your significant other. The absence of neutrality will result in a barrage of unregulated technologies and the unprecedented growth of the deep web (the portion of Internet content that is not or cannot be indexed by regular or standard search engines — typically comprising around 90 per cent of data presently available on the World Wide Web). Most of the deep web is a fairly innocuous place, consisting of anything from library catalogues to your private folder of dead baby jokes, but it is also a lair of (mostly) undetectable criminal activity (case in point, the recent shutdown of Silk Road, an online black market for your every requirement, and I mean every requirement).

The deep web, naturally, is the best illustration of “a free, equal, and private Internet” (when its powers are harnessed for good, not evil) and so is its most popular currency — Bitcoin. A Bitcoin is, in the concise words of Danny Bradbury (in an informative CoinDesk piece), “a payment mechanism designed to level the playing field, driving out unnecessary costs and making it possible for even the lowest income members of society to participate in the economy. But it relies on a free and open Internet to do so.” And vice versa. Researchers have been working on a way to make micropayments and encryption work together without privacy or bandwidth compromise via mesh networks (faster connections through nearby peers, thus leading to net neutrality, and further to telecoms becoming skittish). However, steady price gains for Bitcoin as well as altcoins (alternative cryptocurrencies to bitcoin) are undeniable proof that telecoms may have to bow to the inevitable.

Also, in the absence of a free and open Internet, organisations like Wikileaks and Anonymous would abound with alacrity. While some would call that an excellent development, there are those who would want to banish Internet altogether from our fair land, making the aam junta cower, tremble and rage by turns at the usurping of its digital rights.

Another thing that seems to be troubling very few, especially in the wake of the wave of acrimony against Airtel, is Google’s plans to expand into the MVNO market. Google, so goes the news, is planning to go into partnership with Sprint and T-Mobile to further its plans of becoming a wireless carrier. While Google already provides free or subsidised Internet with Project Loon and Google Fiber, the new move could easily prove a challenge to net neutrality. Some see the move as harmless — in fact, for the greater good. Evidenced by a senior software engineer of my acquaintance who, since Google makes money by tracking user information and behaviour online and doesn’t prioritise certain kinds of traffic on the Internet access it provides currently, doesn’t see them having any incentive to do so in the cellular space. In fact, he finds the Google MVNO a fascinating move, especially since Sprint and T-Mobile have far fewer subscribers than ATT or Verizon — meaning that the MVNO provider is at the mercy of these MNOs and that, were Google to be successful with this, it means the MNOs are losing selling power. An interesting irony in the context of net neutrality. On the other hand, a researcher at Centre for Internet and Society and former tech journalist is of the opinion that Google may try to push its services since that has always been the case with corporates, whether they provide CSR freebies or diversify their business.

After all, “Who decides what we consume? What if tomorrow the government decides everyone watching YouTube is wasting their time, or [those] watching cricket should be doing something better? That starts to tread into censorship...” says Vijay Anand of The Startup Centre. I suppose all we can do is keep hope animatedly existent as to the triumph of the freedom in our webspace and spam TRAI’s inbox with as many e-mails as we can.

Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is a principle that says Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should treat all traffic and content on their networks equally.

How does net neutrality affect you?
The internet is now a level-playing field. Anybody can start up a website, stream music or use social media with the same amount of data that they have purchased with a particular ISP. But in the absence of neutrality, your ISP might favour certain websites over others for which you might have to pay extra. Website A might load at a faster speed than Website B because your ISP has a deal with Website A that Website B cannot afford. It’s like your electricity company charging you extra for using the washing machine, television and microwave oven above and beyond what you are already paying.

Why Now?

Late last month, Trai released a draft consultation paper seeking views from the industry and the general public on the need for regulations for over-the-top (OTT) players such as Whatsapp, Skype, Viber etc, security concerns and net neutrality. The objective of this consultation paper, the regulator said, was to analyse the implications of the growth of OTTs and consider whether or not changes were required in the current regulatory framework.

Key Players
  • Internet Service Providers like Airtel, Vodaphone, Reliance...
  • The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India which lays down the rules for telecom companies
  • The Internet companies like Facebook, Google, whatsapp and other smaller startups
  • You, the consumer

What is an OTT?
OTT or over-the-top refers to applications and services which are accessible over the internet and ride on operators' networks offering internet access services. The best known examples of OTT are Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, e-commerce sites, Ola, Facebook messenger. The OTTs are not bound by any regulations. The Trai is of the view that the lack of regulations poses a threat to security and there’s a need for government’s intervention to ensure a level playing field in terms of regulatory compliance.