Last summer, while a debate over net neutrality was on in the US, in his very funny news satire show, Last Week Tonight, the comedian John Oliver used a typically risqué example to explain what a non-neutral Internet could do to small web-based entrepreneurs and startups.
If, he said, the giant movie-streaming site Netflix struck a deal with service providers to get on to the Internet’s fastest lanes, he wondered what would happen to, say, a (fictitious, of course) tiny startup, ‘Nutflix’, America’s one-stop resource for streaming videos of men ‘getting hit in the nuts’. The implication: if the Internet didn’t provide equal access to all sites, ‘Nutflix’ or any other startup trying to take on an established giant could come a cropper.
In simplistic terms, a non-neutral Internet means this: a) That subscribers such as you and I may no longer have unfettered access to anything that we may want to read, listen to, watch or buy on the Internet unless we paid telcos additional charges for it; and b) That content or service providers on the Internet may also have to pay more if they wanted the same telcos to offer preferential access to their websites. But things are not as simple as that.
There are different interests at play in the debate over net neutrality. Consider the telcos who provide access to the Internet. They charge consumers such as you and me for access to the Internet and, in a net-neutral scenario, we are free to visit whatever websites we want to and do pretty much what we want to. And while how much we pay the telcos depends on what download speeds we opt for and how much we want to download a month, what we pay is this: a data charge to access the Internet.
If, however, telcos strike a deal with Internet companies or content providers who are willing to pay them for preferential treatment (higher speeds or exclusive access to subscribers), they can earn more. Bharti’s proposed Airtel Zero service for mobile users is an example: Internet companies will pay Airtel Zero and the latter will offer consumers free access to their apps. Effectively, the consumer’s data charges will be paid by the Internet companies.
According to telcos, such services are a win-win for all. Consumers will get access to apps for free or at nominal fees; Internet companies will fork out money but also reach guaranteed target audiences; and, of course, the telcos will make more money. If it’s as good as that, then what’s the problem?
The first problem is choice or, rather, the lack of it. As consumers, you and I and everyone else will have to take only what the telcos offer and that would depend on which Internet companies they have struck deals with. And, for Internet startups and small business ventures it could mean being pitted against the muscle power of bigger, established and deep-pocketed competitors who could edge them out of the bouquet of apps or services that telcos will offer.
Indian telcos say that such models can help them invest in expanding their networks, rolling out more broadband capacities and reaching more Indians in a market where Internet connectivity is still dismally low — all of which are great objectives but should they come at the cost of limiting choices for consumers and restricting access for businesses and entrepreneurs?
In the past couple of weeks, supporters of net neutrality in droves have said no — by using the Internet they have sent nearly 800,000 (as on Saturday morning) emails to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in favour of keeping the Internet free.
The Internet is like a network of motorable highways that crisscross a vast sprawl. Let’s say you’ve paid a toll to get on that network in your car. Now, who would you like to tell you where you should be headed, which place you can visit and where you should spend your money? Those who have built and run and maintain the highway? Or would you rather decide yourself?