The alleged comedians of All India Bakchod have tried to explain ‘net neutrality’, and it is charming that they have done so without expressing a desire to fornicate with someone’s mother, or whatever it is that they say in the name of humour. They fulfilled a basic principle of story-telling, which is that there has to be a battle between good and evil. The evil, in the story of the comedians, are the telecom companies, the good are their internet subscribers, and the conflict is over a plot to manipulate what websites or applications people would access. And for the good to win they must, as the good usually do, sign a petition.
This story is a plagiarism of a First World folktale that entered popular space through the act of a conscientious comedian who discusses public policy with a British accent. There is no doubt the slant of the story has moral justifications. After all, ‘net neutrality’ is a principle that demands that telecom companies do not favour any website or application in overt or covert ways, including giving fast or free access to select sites.
But, India is a different setting from the West, and here the story should be told this way: An airline’s sweet and noble business class passengers begin a revolt because the airline is planning to give away free economy seats to the stinking poor. And, the business class passengers are signing a petition.
These are the facts, they are not disputed: About 20% of India is connected to the internet. In all probability, Indians who know what net neutrality means belong to the 10% that consumes 90% of the bandwidth. This was what telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad meant when he said that the internet did not belong to “a few”. He was not referring to telecom companies.
The comedians had included his ministry in their idea of evil by citing its ‘consultation paper’, which argues that telecom companies incur huge costs in licences and infrastructure, but a host of applications, like Whatsapp, that do not contribute to India’s infrastructure nor revenues, enrich themselves from India by offering services that are in direct competition with the telecom companies. So the telecom companies have no incentive to improve infrastructure, hence accessing the internet in India is like watching art cinema.
The ‘consultation paper’ hints that things might improve if service providers are allowed to increase their profits by violating net neutrality.
A telecom company can violate the principle of an open internet in many ways. One of the violations can end up benefitting hundreds of millions of Indians who would be able to access the internet free of charge. Their introduction to the internet would be modest and would not affect the experience of the others. If only the poor fully understood what the richer are trying to deny them they will hit the streets. But for that they would perhaps need some comedians to spin a story.
In effect, the Indian reality is that there is a bad violation of net neutrality and a good violation.
Airtel has announced that it would give users free access to the websites or applications of companies that have commercial arrangements with it. This would lure millions of its users to limit their web experience to some applications. Also, there is a chance that such a plan would affect the download speeds of those sites that are not Airtel’s clients. If all telecom companies adopt such schemes, a cartel would form that would promote a mediocre internet.
Internet.org, on the other hand, is free internet for the poor. It is a corporate plot of Facebook, and that is good. In all these years, the noble intentions of the altruists have not taken the internet to over a billion Indians who cannot pay for data. But Facebook can do that precisely because it has a self-interest — it wants to be the internet.
The stated goal of internet.org, which was founded by Facebook in association with seven other companies, including Reliance, is to bring ‘affordable’ connectivity to the world’s poor. In India, 150 million Reliance mobile customers can access free internet through an application of internet.org. They are restricted to about 40 chosen sites, most of them dreary or informative, including news websites and two on ‘women’s empowerment’, because you see the poor should first become better human beings before they can enjoy the net. There is one entertainment website in the bouquet but access to video is restricted. I would argue that if Facebook is serious about promoting the internet to the poor it should try to do it through fun. But then fun is a lot of data and someone has to pay for data.
The companies, especially the media, that have pulled out of internet.org citing lazy moral reasons, may regret their unwise moves.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that he is willing to associate with all Indian telecom companies, which means internet.org will be available to every Indian with a reasonable phone. With such a reach, it is not improbable that internet.org would get an endorsement from the Modi government in the form of government websites being made available free on the application.
Zuckerberg has argued that according to his definition he is not violating net neutrality. He wrote in this newspaper, ‘Net neutrality is not in conflict with working to get more people connected…To give more people access to the internet, it is useful to offer some services for free. If you can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access and voice than none at all.”
One billion likes.
(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Twitter: @manujosephsanThe views expressed by the author are personal)