Here’s why you must sign those Net neutrality petitions going around

  • Rajiv Makhni, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 19, 2015 12:13 IST

It’s the future. Not years and decades into the future, just a few months ahead. You log onto your Gmail account and download two big attachments. Your ‘Internet Pay What You Use’ (IPWU) meter remains fairly steady.

You move onto YouTube and check out the latest version of the yet-to-be-banned AIB Roast Part 2. It’s got enough cusswords to make you laugh out loud but seeing your IPWU meter go haywire cuts that L-O-L feeling to half.

You pick up your mobile phone to make a Voice Over IP call to your mom back home, but cut her short when she gets into ‘Are You Eating Properly’ mode. Hearing the same criticism about how skinny you’ve become is no longer worth the price you’re paying.

You move on to a shopping website; you have to buy a pen drive, the cost of which has been lowered to ‘acquire’ you as a loyal customer. Your IPWU meter doesn’t move at all. Your girlfriend sneaks up on you and preens about the awesome second part of Fifty Shades Of Grey on Netflix India that she must, must see right away.

You grind your teeth and brace yourself to spend the next 2 hours in chick-flick hell while keeping an eye on the super-premium charges piling up on your IPWU meter. Welcome to the future, where you pay for your Internet connection based on the kind of content you consume, not by the amount of data you use.

Two words to live by
Net neutrality. It’s a very important phrase that, unfortunately, is ignored by most people because it sounds overly techie and jargonish. But mark my words: it matters to all of us and now more than ever. To make this really simple, let me break it down.

Net neutrality is the principle that expects Internet service providers and governments to treat all data on the Internet equally – not charging differently by user content, site, application, type of equipment or mode of communication.

You shouldn’t be charged an additional or premium rate whether you browse a website, make a Skype call, watch a video, shop online or download a movie. The Internet breaks all barriers and is neutral, and must remain so. Some of the biggest supporters of Net neutrality include Vinton Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet Protocol, and Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

If the guys who pretty much invented and streamlined the Internet think that it must remain neutral, then it really should! That is the theory. The current reality is very different. Especially in India.

What's Airtel Zero?

In December of 2014, Airtel came up with a premium rate package if you wanted to use its data for making VoIP calls. The online community and media were up in arms and Airtel soon beat a hasty retreat.

Before that, telecom companies had been petitioning for charging additional rates for using WhatsApp, Viber and other instant messaging services. That too was rejected by TRAI. Then, they came up with a sneaky way to get their way, while disguising it as a boon with the magic word: ‘Free’.

Not really zero: While some apps may be available for free, a disparity in charges will lead to abuse.

Facebook partnered with Reliance Communications to bring to consumers. And Airtel came up with Airtel Zero. Basically, both allow you to access apps or websites of participating app companies and businesses at zero data charges. Facebook free, dozens of other apps and services free! What’s not to love?

A new rulebook
A lot actually. While it may seem free, is it really beneficial? The participating companies will obviously pay the telcos and may get faster pipelines and better access points. That’s favouritism.

What about those businesses that can’t afford to subsidise your data charges? Isn’t that unfair? What about start-ups? Won’t they get locked out as you’ll want to use the no-data-charges apps from the guys with venture-capitalism funding that will pay for all this? in store

While the telcos deny all these possibilities as myths and say this isn’t about Net neutrality at all, the truth is that it’s creating an uneven playing field. Whether you charge more for one kind of content or charge nothing for another – neutrality is basically bludgeoned to death.

What’s to stop the telcos from making this really expensive for companies to sign up in the future? What’s to stop them from coming up with a model where you pay a big premium for a website that gives you super discounts?

What they want you to believe
Many argue that the entire concept of Net neutrality is flawed. That it made sense when the Net was in its infancy, but is outdated feel-good foolishness now. That prioritising of bandwidth is necessary for future innovation on the Internet.

That the huge investments needed to take the Net to a whole new futuristic level cannot be recouped unless premium rates are allowed. Don’t fall for these arguments. These are false promises being made in the guise of a better future.

Keeping the Net neutral may be as important as your freedom of expression. Disparity in charges opens the floodgates for abuse in the future. The Net was born neutral, let’s keep it that way. Pity I can’t say the same for Fifty Shades Of Grey!

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, April 19
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