Net neutrality is the equal treatment of all content and services on the Internet by network providers. The debate around this issue blew up in 2014 in the United States, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fielded a proposal that would allow Internet ‘fast lanes’ for companies that could pay for it. The possibility for a small start-up to compete with a billion-dollar titan is what made the Internet exceptional as a platform. This plan could have seen the Internet carved up into fast and slow lanes, which would mean the destruction of the open Internet and would privilege larger, more powerful players.
Amid huge public outcry over this plan, this proposal was shelved, and rules to protect net neutrality were put into place in 2015, signalling a watershed moment for activists in the country who had been fighting to preserve the open nature of the Internet. These rules prohibit blocking (access to lawful content and services), throttling (which means the access to lawful content, apps and services may not be degraded) and paid prioritisation (payment for the creation of Internet ‘fast lanes’), the three main principles of network neutrality.
Chile was the first country in the world to pass net neutrality legislation in 2010, and in 2014 also did away with zero-rating services, offered by platforms like Facebook and Wikipedia, wherein companies strike deals with telecom players to offer a basic version of the services freely to customers, without any data charges. The debate around the ban on zero-rating services has been contentious, as it also brings in issues of universal access to the Internet. Proponents of these low-data usage, zero-rated services claim that they bring down costs of Internet access in regions where mobile data is expensive, especially in developing countries. However, it has to be recognised that access to zero-rating services cannot be equated with full Internet access, as they offer only a tiny slice of what the Internet has to offer. It also affords an unfair advantage to those companies on zero-rated platforms, limiting competition from smaller businesses. It also could potentially trap users in the platform’s walled garden, as they act as disincentives to purchasing data to experience the full, open and neutral Internet.
While the idea that ‘some Internet is better than no Internet’ has been seen as convincing, the truth is that this creates a two-tiered Internet, or a “poor Internet for poor people”. The focus must instead be on creating sustainable alternatives that will provide real Internet access for those who lack it. Other models that have been suggested is the idea of a universal data allowance, even a Direct Benefit Transfer for data packs, a government scheme which could offer a certain amount of data to every subscriber annually.
Angola’s digital pirates have turned zero-rated services into a file-sharing network
Zero-rated services have been offered in developing countries across the world, to provide cheap internet access to a limited number of websites. In Angola, both Wikipedia Zero and Facebook’s Free Basics have a presence. These zero-rated services are closed environments, not the full and open Internet. These platforms act as gatekeepers for users, surveys have revealed that a large number of people in developing countries believe that Facebook is the Internet. The use of zero-rated services is widespread in countries like Angola, where the high costs of data restrict people’s access to the full Internet. Wikipedia Zero and Free Basics thus become the Internet for many Angolans.
Enterprising Angolans have used these services to share pirated material like movies, music, games and television shows. The data is free on these sites, so Angolans are hiding large files in Wikipedia articles, and using a Facebook group to direct people to these files. Wikipedia editors have tried various methods to put an end to this practice by monitoring file uploads, limited IP blocking, data filters, and have even set up a task force to deal with the issue. However, this policing of the platform ignores the reality that Wikipedia has become the only access point to the Internet. Without access to file-sharing sites or YouTube, it is only natural that users will find creative ways to leverage the restricted access that they do have to get around the system. The ‘some Internet is better than no Internet’ argument falls flat here, since users themselves are coming up with ways to climb the walls of Wikipedia and Facebook’s gardens. When you create a two-tiered Internet, “those in the second tier will rightly aspire to get into the first tier”.
Europe’s missed opportunity for net neutrality
The European Parliament voted in favour of new net neutrality regulations, ostensibly to enshrine the principle in law. However, loopholes in the regulations allow the possibility of creating a ‘two-speed’ Internet. Even though amendments were proposed to address these loopholes, the Parliament chose to pass the unamended version. This allows providers to offer priority to “specialised services” as long as the open Internet is treated equally, which cold open up fast lanes to companies willing to pay for them. The regulations allow the practice of zero rating, but leave it up to national regulator to ban or allow the practice in their own country. There are other exceptions like allowing Internet service providers to introduce “reasonable traffic management measures” during periods predicted as peak demand and group some services into traffic classes which may be slowed down or sped up according to their discretion.
The amount of leeway that has been offered to Internet service providers undermines the legislation, which was meant to protect network neutrality. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web commented on the draft regulation, saying that “if adopted as currently written, these rules will threaten innovation, free speech and privacy, and compromise Europe’s ability to lead in the digital economy.” This disappointing move has passed the buck to the national regulators and courts who ultimately need to determine how the rules are implemented.
Tracing the contours of India’s net neutrality debate
In India, the net neutrality issue first gained traction in December 2014, when Bharti Airtel (one of India’s biggest telecom companies) announced that it would start charging extra for VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) services such as Skype and Viber. Amidst public outcry, Airtel agreed to wait for the regulator’s statement on the issue before implementing this proposal. In response to this and similar concerns telecom companies were raising about the negative impact of over-the-top (OTT) services on their revenue, in March 2015, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) published a consultation paper on the regulation of these OTT services, calling for public comment.
Over-the-top services refer to any service received over the Internet that is not provided directly by the Internet service provider. This could refer to video services like Netflix, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services like Skype and FaceTime (which allow you to make voice calls through the Internet), and instant messaging services like Telegram, Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and so on. On top of data packs, people would now be expected to pay extra for the different services and applications they choose to access on the Internet, a clear case of content discrimination by the ISPs.
A loose collective of people, including lawyers, entrepreneurs and journalists, created a campaign called ‘Save the Internet’ to raise awareness about the threat posed to the neutral and open Internet. They reached out to the comedy group AIB, who created a video, ‘Save the Internet’ that explained the matter in simple, accessible terms. Thanks to their massive fanbase in the country, the video received over 3 million views. The web portal SavetheInternet.in provided an email template with answers to the questions the paper had posed, which could be edited or simply emailed to TRAI. With these efforts, the regulator received over one million emails over the course of a month, an unprecedented level of citizen participation, carried out entirely in the online space.
Watch AIB’s video on net neutrality:
With the net neutrality debate heating up in the public sphere, zero rated platforms such as Facebook’s Internet.org (a tie-up with Reliance) and Bharti Airtel’s Airtel Zero came under fire for their violations of the principle. Under enormous public pressure, Flipkart bowed out of Airtel Zero, and companies like Cleartrip and NDTV followed suit by pulling out of Internet.org, and issued statements in support of net neutrality. The sheer amount of civic participation in the exercise caught international attention, prompting Mark Zuckerberg to write a defence of Internet.org as a matter of basic access for the marginalised. However, the all-encompassing nature of the name ‘Internet.org’ itself had caused controversy. As critics pointed out in an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, access to Facebook and a few other handpicked services could not be equated to access to the full, open Internet.
Facebook responded to criticisms by revamping its service; in September 2015, Internet.org was rebranded as ‘Free Basics’, and the platform was thrown open to all companies, as long as they fulfilled certain technical requirements. However, concerns about Free Basics as a “walled garden” with Facebook playing the role of gatekeeper still remained, as it would allow one platform to shape the online experience of users, as well as other concerns like privacy with Facebook having access to the online activity of all its users on the Free Basics platform.
With this debate still raging, TRAI published another consultative paper on differential pricing and suspended Free Basics until a decision could be reached on zero-rated services in the country. Facebook responded to this by launching a massive ad campaign; newspapers and billboards proclaimed Free Basics as “digital equality” for the masses, Mark Zuckerberg wrote an op-ed asking who could possibly be against the service, and Facebook even launched a campaign to “Save Free Basics” on its own platform. However, the automated response for the ‘Save Free Basics’ campaign failed to address the questions posed by the paper, and were therefore not considered relevant responses, causing TRAI to accuse Facebook of turning the process into a “crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll”. In February 2016, the telecom regulator ruled against differential pricing, marking a significant victory for net neutrality and the open Internet in the country.