WHAT started out as a telecom company's mistimed introduction of a new Internet package is now a full-fledged war over the way we access the Internet. Trouble in the net-sphere began when Airtel offered subscribers free Internet access to a chosen group of websites. Nothing wrong with that per se because companies do offer different types of Internet packages to keep subscribers hooked. But the noisy public relations campaign that signalled the start of the “Airtel Zero” internet plan alerted netizens to the possibility of telecom companies hatching some kind of an insidious game plan.
Within a day of the announcement, 140-character angry bytes on Twitter and slightly longer ones on other mobile applications such as Facebook and Whatsapp soon gave way to a torrent of heated articles in print and on the net. All of them criticised Airtel’s move as restrictive and potentially monopolistic. This meant net access to companies that don't pay the telecom operator will be blocked out on the subscriber's phone. In telecom terms, this was seen as violative of the idea of net neutrality.
The debate over net neutrality is not confined to India. Till recently, phone companies world over had no problems in providing net neutrality, which means giving mobile phone subscribers access to all websites for a usage-based fee. This is because till then their main income was from phone calls and SMS messages. But they began having second thoughts after users increasingly began using applications such as Whatsapp, Viber and Skype instead of phone calls and SMS that had till then given the phone companies high profit margins.
Like elsewhere, net neutrality was not an issue for Indian telecom companies as long as phone calls and SMS were giving decent revenues. Airtel came on the net activists' radar after it made a high-pitched announcement for a free but restricted internet package, although some companies have been quietly experimenting with the concept. Flipkart, the first participant in Airtel Zero plan, is also not without business rivals and detractors. Earlier there were also allegations of predatory pricing, tax evasion and ownership. Its rivals too would not have been unhappy to see the collapse of this high-decibel partnership.
By April 15, the voices became stronger after the net's liberal and orthodox sects made common cause for net neutrality. By evening it had turned into an issue of consumer freedom and free speech, forcing Flipkart to break off talks. Soon the net was replete with dire warnings if companies followed Airtel's example: Telecom companies might block political opinion inconvenient to the Government; selective access will discourage small but bright developers of new applications; and, the simplistic clincher, you may be directed to Pepsi even if you wanted Coke because the phone company had a tie-up with Pepsi. Such apprehensions were not groundless. Down the ages, companies have rarely been politically and value-judgment neutral. A US telecom company jammed a rock star's performance in Chicago because of excessive profanity. Later it came out that all he did was to croon “Bush find another home”; that was the time when the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were on the top of the agenda. Another began conducting “deep packet inspections” ostensibly to stop pirated videos. Coincidentally, this violation of privacy happened when it was planning to set up a video distribution company.
In India, protests forced the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to release a paper carrying both sides of arguments about net neutrality. Never had TRAI received so many suggestions. One estimate puts them at one million but they were not diverse: The subject line invariably had one of the words — violating, breaking, meddling, breaching, disregarding, encroaching and disapproving — giving a fair idea of the Aam Netizen's rage over Airtel's move. This mass reaction was awe-inspiring and a milestone in citizen activism but ultimately self-serving. Most of the protestors seem to be driven by the singular fear of a more expensive Internet, rather than promoting egalitarianism and collective management of the net. Most of these net activists did not object or proposed alternates when poor countries, including India, were arm-twisted into paying full rates for software programmes in Government institutions.
This activism over net neutrality could have translated into support for India's efforts to break the current stranglehold of a few over the Internet. The voice of net activists was feeble in countering motivated writing by a small coterie of telecom experts who favour the current arrangement of US-led governanece of the world-wide web. Is it acceptable to net activists to allow a few foreign countries and corporates to control world-wide settling of Internet standards, disputes and policies? Is freedom not endangered as long as this small group controls and inspects all net traffic? Isn't it time they also vigorously campaigned for the setting up of an inter-governmental body to run the net? Though the protests in India were narrow in their objective, the sudden avalanche of public opinion served its purpose.
No telecom company will think of breaching net neutrality with too-clever-by-half marketing plans. TRAI, perhaps due to the presence of seasoned civil servants in its ranks, has almost always ensured public propriety and welfare. The vigil by netizens will doubly ensure that TRAI's recommendations on net neutrality will balance the objectives of freedom of choice and maximising revenues.
But the unprecedented petitioning could have been the first step towards understanding and fighting against other inequities prevailing on the Internet. That was not to be. While consumer and activists were focused on ensuring domestic net neutrality, New Delhi jettisoned its quest for a stake in managing the affairs of the world-wide net and has instead chosen to back the current arrangement overseen by a few countries and companies.
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