There can be no dispute that in the last 50 years the Internet has turned out to be the biggest example of ‘creative destruction’ to have impacted our lives. It has empowered people, made communication many times faster, turned production processes more efficient and, above all, empowered billions. The debate over ‘net neutrality’ needs to be seen in this context. Net neutrality is a principle that treats Internet traffic equally. For example, in the world wide web, a start-up’s website should have the same chance to succeed as that of a large transnational corporation. Besides, internet service providers (ISPs) should not be allowed to ‘throttle’ or slowdown the speed of any site or favour 'paid prioritisation'.
The department of telecommunications’ (DoT’s) much-awaited report slams the telecom companies, and aims to make the internet access non-discriminatory and fair in India. The panel unhesitatingly recommends that “the core principles of net neutrality must be adhered to”. The Internet should be seen as a public utility, based on the simple rule that a network and the data that flows through it are two separate entities.
While the report has put in perspective the line of thinking within the government, there are some areas where technologies and their application have gone too far ahead to be regulated. Over The Top (OTT) apps such as peer-to-peer messaging services like WhatsApp mount on mobile phone numbers. The DoT panel has made it clear that specific OTT communication services dealing with messaging should not be interfered with through regulatory instruments. But, the panel’s divergent views about voice calls made through OTTs muddy the picture.
On the one hand, it wants international calls through OTTs to remain free, but favours domestic calls using similar networks to be priced. This can be puzzling, primarily because there cannot be two different sets of rules for similar traffic. It is also confounding because, while at the beginning of the report, the panel comes out in unequivocal support of net neutrality, it later indicates that it isn’t against pricing of OTT-mounted local voice calls. Drawing an analogy from the highways sector, one may well ask: Is it logical to collect toll from locals who use a highway to reach their villages, but allow inter-state vehicles to zoom past free? These are relevant questions in an increasingly competitive e-commerce market like India’s. One would have liked the DoT panel to provide more clarity on these matters. After all, net neutrality is an absolute concept. Either you are for it, or against it. There cannot, and should not, be degrees of support.