All you want to know about Net Neutrality

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 16, 2015 13:01 IST

The official report on Net Neutrality by India's department of telecommunication is now out. The panel, which was led by, the department's technology advisor, recommends that the "core principles" of Net Neutrality be adhered to.

However, the report makes a distiction between international and domestic VoIP calling, saying that while using services like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber to make international calls was OK, local and national calls placed using these services should be brought under the same regulations as regular calls placed though your service provider -- a point that doesn't strictly adhere to "core principles" of Net Neutrality, which say that all data on the internet should be treated equally.

What is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality sounds like a scary term but what it means is simply this: on the internet, all bits are equal. What you do with the data you pay for -- watch a YouTube video, send a WhatsApp message or make a Skype call -- is entirely your prerogative and in an ideal world, your internet service provider should not prioritise certain kinds of bits over others. A neutral internet is a utility like electricity - if your power company, for instance, doesn't have a say in how you use the electricity it provides, why should an internet service provider get to decide what you do with the bits you pay for?

"The internet is built on principles of openness and freedom, and at the core of this is nondiscrimination at an ISP level," says Nikhil Pahwa, editor of Medianama and a vocal advocate for net neutrality.

Right now, thanks to the rise of apps like WhatsApp, which eat into operators' SMS revenues, and video-streaming services like YouTube and Netflix, which consume massive amounts of bandwidth, these principles of openness and freedom are being challenged around the world. In the United States, for example, video-streaming service Netflix was forced to pay Comcast, the country's largest internet service provider, to retain its access to consumers or risk being throttled. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) only recently voted to regulate broadband as a public utility - no splitting the Internet into fast and slow lanes as operators had wanted. The FCC was promptly sued by the United States Telecom Association, a trade group that represents some of the country's largest internet providers.

But if things are bad for consumers, they're worse for businesses and startups that rely on an open Internet to reach customers. "If I'm building an app, I need to know that a new feature, which I may not have thought of today, can be added later without me having to first negotiate a deal with an operator," says Rohin Dharmakumar, an entrepreneur who is in the process of launching Owntastic, a Bangalore-based startup that focuses on after-sales experience once a consumer buys a product. "I'm very worried."

Dharmakumar adds that regulating the internet in this manner will ensure that India's booming startup culture is nipped in the bud. "Startups will die."

Right now, businesses and companies are free to operate whatever services they want over the Internet. "Features become full businesses," says Pahwa. "That freedom will get constrained by this approach to maximise revenues by restricting. Telecom operators should be seeking to maximise revenues by making us use more of the Internet. They're slicing the pie instead of growing the pie."

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