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Clearing the air around the issues of Net Neutrality

It’s time to stop pussyfooting around the subject and understand the issues involved

brunch Updated: Apr 25, 2015 14:54 IST

Due to the way magazine print cycles run, I’m writing this column a few days before you will get to read it. And in that time, things may change dramatically. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to do a follow up to my Net Neutrality (NN) piece.

In the last few days I’ve seen the NN debate move from an intelligent conversation to complete rabble rousing. From Flipkart, Cleartrip and others suddenly discovering a missing conscience, to Mark Zuckerberg reigniting the debate with his own brand of logic, to All India Bakchod (AIB) coming up with a funny video that got the analogy wrong, to Airtel itself coming up with an ironically comical “we support net neutrality” statement, to almost every TV channel getting in ‘experts’ that got the principles wrong. It’s time to set a few things right, stop pussyfooting around this subject, get the gloves off and come out swinging.


When Flipkart flipped and said they were walking out of discussions with Airtel Zero, here’s what they said: "...looking deeper we realised that Net Neutrality can get compromised in the future". Well, let’s add the required pinch of salt to that statement. I’m sure there was a deeper realisation – not about Net Neutrality, but the fact that they were going to lose customers, get more bad press and even more downgraded ratings on their app.

Think about it this way. If the NN debate hadn’t exploded like it did, if there hadn’t been a backlash, if people didn’t start a campaign boycotting Flipkart, would they have still backed out?

After all, Sachin Bansal, the founder of Flipkart had vehemently defended Airtel Zero just a few days back by tweeting "0 rated apps for limited time doesn’t go against #NetNeutrality. Costs/competition are very high. Can’t be sustained for long".

Strange that he got a wake-up call to do an about face within such a short time. He also tried to make it an Indians vs Foreigners battle as he tweeted, "When foreign companies do it in India – Innovation. Indians do it – Violation". He of course meant Facebook. Which brings me to Mark Zuckerberg.

The NN debate really did become all about Airtel Zero, but in reality, it was Facebook that blew open the doors when Zuckerberg came up with the deliberately confusing

Basically it is the same as Airtel Zero in the guise of helping humanity and the poor who can’t afford to get onto the Internet. Zuckerberg came up with a very passionate defense of his “save the world” intentions in a column he wrote saying, “Net neutrality and universal connectivity must co-exist”.

In effect, he said that everyone across the world deserves to go online even if they can’t afford it, and he was doing just that. Once you’ve wiped away your tears of joy and stopped applauding him, cast your mind on how that would work.

People who’ve never been online would access, think they are finally on the Internet, get to be on Facebook and a few other carefully chosen partner websites (Bing, not Google, no YouTube, etc) and thank the Lord they were finally able to access the vast information base and the holy grail that is the Internet. Mark would have everyone thinking that Facebook is THE Internet.

If his intentions are really noble, why curate and chose a few partners? Why not make everything free for everyone? Because paying for everyone to grant access to your competitors online isn’t a very good business plan!

Getting it mostly wrong

AIB did a great job with a video that spread awareness of the subject in their typical inimitable style. Unfortunately,

they got it wrong with the analogy they presented to simplify things.

They equated Net Neutrality to a person entering an amusement park and being asked to pay different prices for different rides inside. Except, that’s pretty much how many amusement parks do work.

Heck, forget about amusement parks, you can even get a Fast Pass for breaking lines in religious places so you can meet God quicker. So, that did confuse a lot of people. Then

there are the experts that came on TV shows and passed judgement on NN.

Most got it dramatically wrong when they suggested that it already happens in many countries and that even Cable TV and Mobile networks work just like that. Well, you can’t keep adding evil due to previous evil that is prevalent. You’ve got to stop it now and then work backwards and improve the past.

Romanticising Net neutrality
What gets my goat is how people seem to think that the NN debate only has one side and that if you’re not with them, you’re against them. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Keeping things equal for all online is the right thing – but it can’t be the ONLY thing. There is a case to be made for getting equipped for the future.

The Internet is very different today from what it was when it was conceived. No one ever thought that it would become the central backbone for movie streaming, high-speed videos, huge cloud computing data, billions of images on social networks criss-crossing every second.

The current networks won’t manage this for very long. A parallel network may have to exist that we need to build right now. A network that may not be able to keep all the principles of net neutrality alive. Let’s keep the current Net as it is and keep an open mind for building a future Net.

Advice no one asked me for
To all those who want to get everyone online and leave no one behind, you don’t have to come up with these poorly camouflaged strategies. Just fund a simple thing. A free data package for every human being on earth: 1 GB would be a good start!

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

From HT Brunch, April 26
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First Published: Apr 24, 2015 18:15 IST