The net neutrality debate in India largely lingers on what folks will have to pay for that they’re now getting for free, how much more it is going to cost them to do the same things they’re doing today, what will happen to the small business guys as the large guys take over with money power, etc. Even the (in)venerable AIB does more or less the same pitch in their now famous Save The Internet video. There is also the article on The Hindu pointing out the panel recommendations and they mostly have to do with who and what needs to be paid for and what is to be left untouched.
Much of this money-focused hoohah is a distraction on why net neutrality is important to us. If we don’t adopt a “we won’t touch the internet” policy, there is much more at stake than just a few people making more money than we think they should.
First, I want to get one thing out of the way - why are we so bothered about some companies making more money than what they’re already making, by charging for services that run over their networks? That’s after all why companies exist. They exist to create wealth and why shouldn’t they benefit from it? The very startups that the money-focused arguments seem to side with, are themselves in the same game. Every company wants to be a monopoly. Period. And that includes startups.
What is important about this, though, is that those with a monopoly do not use their powers to prevent others from eating into their profits. Given that every company wants to be a monopoly, we need a regulation that prevents them from misbehaving. A legal barrier for preventing this goes by the name “anti trust law” (remember Microsoft vs. Netscape?). So we can solve the david-vs-goliath issue using an appropriate anti-trust law, at least in principle.
Beyond these, we’ll even put aside the fact that the demands of telcos for differential pricing of services on their networks is like the electricity company asking your bank for a share of transaction fees for providing the electricy to run the computers that are performing these transactions. In other words, it is about time we recognized communication infrastructure as utility.
So what is exactly at stake here?
In short - privacy, democracy and sovereignty.
In order to determine which service accesses need to be fast and which slow, the network providers need to know what you’re doing on the net. Did someone share a video with you on Facepalm that you tried to watch. Sorry, the video is fast only if it is from YouKnowWhoTube. Otherwise you’ll need to twiddle your thumbs for longer. Ahem, the network operators now know what videos you’re watching online? Of course. They need to know this in order to fulfill their obligations to whoever is paying them.
Tip: If you’re paranoid about network operators and service providers poking their noses into what you’re doing online, checkout The Tor Project.
If the video you were watching is about a cute feline trying to chase its own tail, you won’t have much to worry about. If it is about some controversial political information that those in power would not like you to know about, or worse, spread, you could soon be facing an existential threat. Yes, merely knowing where the request for a video came from is enough to zoom in on you. You have given your favourite social networks and search sites the permission to know your location, right? Yes you probably have.
We have regulations for political parties buying time on regular media during election periods. It will take years before a similar regulation that limits spending and bandwidth allocation to political parties surfaces. Worse, in the absence of a “you can’t touch the internet” regulation, your network provider is free to aid the political party of its choice. Accessing PartyA’s website? You’re my buddy - super speed for you. Oh it’s PartyB’s website? Here, have a spinner.
More than even the threat to our right to free speech online, the elephant in the room that nobody bothers to mention is our right to read anonymously. This is already under serious threat, but permitting a non-neutral net rubs salt in the wound by making it legal for parties to deny this right. Welcome to new forms of censorship.
What is now stopping interested parties outside of our country from providing assistance to political groups that will aid them? Let’s introduce a new form of bribery, shall we? Pay a network provider to provide access to ServiceX at a faster speed, with the undocumented communication that PartyC’s materials also fly through the wires to the disadvantage of other parties … and PartyC doesn’t even need to be in the know.
Even the initial proposals by the government comittee seem to recognize this, as they’ve okayed Airtel Zero “with prior permission” but not Facebook’s Internet.org initiative.
End of breath
So, dear people, beware of the distracting arguments about cost, companies making absurd money and such. Beware that a non-neutral internet could very well threaten your existence.
PS: Do you think this makes sense? Am I over-reacting? Let me know through your comments. Btw make sure your comments are civil. Otherwise I could pay your ISP to make certain key sites occasionally slow just often enough that …. ;)