Net neutrality is same as telephone line neutrality, in simple words, if one uses telephone services of operator A, he is not barred from calling a person, who is using services of operator B. Most of the countries have rules which direct telecom operators to provide unrestricted and unfiltered phone services to the people.
After the dawn of the internet era, there were no specific rules regarding regulation of the internet services, but, since the telecom operators were also the Internet service providers, they started providing internet services in the same neutral way as they had been providing the telephone services, means, it is the discretion of the customers whether they want to use the data provided by ISPs to surf any social networking site, to download movies, to write a blog, to make their own websites and so on.
The debate over net neutrality first started in the US, where telecom companies wanted to adopt a tiered service model according to which the customers would have been charged different amounts based on the number of voice minutes, text messages, and other features they use via internet based applications. The idea met huge criticism and finally, On 26 February 2015, the United States FCC (Federal Communications Commission) ruled in favour of net neutrality and reclassified broadband access as a telecommunications service, means, like telecommunication, broadband will be treated as a public utility, which will be regulated by the government.
The debate in India started with Airtel offering a plan called Airtel zero which would provide unrestricted excess to customers to use only those websites which take this plan from Airtel by sharing some fixed amount of revenue with it. The first such company to take this plan was Flipkart, an e commerce website, which was forced to withdraw from it due to the customer backlash.
The main argument given by the telecom companies against the net neutrality is the losses they have incurred after web based applications started providing Over The Top Services (OTTs) like text messages and voice calling to their customers. They argue that these applications are using their infrastructure to make profit and all they want is the profit share from the owners of these applications so that they could make up for their losses.
There are no legal rules regarding net neutrality in India. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India(TRAI) which regulates the telecom industry, invited comments on the concept of net neutrality from industries and other stakeholders in 2006. But no formal rules have been formed to uphold and enforce net neutrality.
Recently, TRAI has again issued a consultation paper to get the public feedback on various questions regarding net neutrality. Apart from the complex language(as even a layman may want to save the internet), the questions can be criticized on various other grounds, for example , the following questions :
Question: Is it too early to establish a regulatory framework for OTT services, since internet penetration is still evolving, access speeds are generally low and there is limited coverage of high-speed broadband in the country? Or, should some beginning be made now with a regulatory framework that could be adapted to changes in the future?
—The US, where speed and coverage is not an issue, has decided to keep internet open for its people. If there was no open internet, there would have been no facebook or twitter today. All these website had a humble beginning and didn’t have enough money to fill in the pockets of ISPs before starting their portals. So, even if in the coming decade or so, internet user base increases in India, it does not require any regulations because India, too, needs innovations and anyone who is trying to develop such innovative web based applications, can not afford to give money to the telecom operators even before starting his work.
Question : Should the OTT players offering communication services (voice, messaging and video call services) through applications (resident either in the country or outside) be brought under the licensing regime?
—Why to adopt the License Raj again ? And does it imply that if someone in India develops any such service, he would be forced to get a license first ? Isn’t it an invitation to all the ills related to the License System which India had grappled with for long before liberalization?
After Airtel Zero, Facebook’s internet.org has drawn criticism for being against the net neutrality. Though, Facebook has tried to defend its initiative and termed it to be different from Airtel Zero, because it intends to provide free internet to poor people, but, it is not difficult to find flaws with this argument. According to this initiative, Reliance has been paid for the bandwidth costs of serving the Facebook and other selected websites which would be available with this application. It seems that in the garb of making free internet available to the poor people, it is an attempt to make them believe that internet is equivalent to Facebook. This would help Facebook to retain its hegemony within the rapidly changing landscape of web based applications ,which can lead to its demise in the same manner its own success did to the previously developed applications like Orkut.
TRAI has given a deadline till 24th April,2015 to send the feedback on the consultation paper and it has already received huge number of mails in favour of the net neutrality, however, it is yet to be seen, which of the sides wins finally – freedom of the people or the corporate interests?