(Co-Authored with Shreyas Bharadwaj)
A small twitter poll conducted by @bwoyblunder revealed how confused people are about the current NN-Freebasics issue. Even otherwise, we are seeing people question, albeit reluctantly, the basis of NN which is prohibiting Facebook from offering a free stripped down version of the internet. People were not so ambivalent when the issue first came onto the scene. Two million emails were sent to TRAI demanding NN. But today nobody knows what violates NN and what doesn’t. Why is there so much confusion now?
The responsibility for this whole mess squarely lies on the dubious and at times malicious campaign run by the folks at #savetheinternet. They made an issue out of absolutely nothing. They took up an arcane issue, added their flavor and made it out to be a doomsday scenario.
If one remembers well, the concept of NN was introduced as a holy tenet of the internet to the general public when Airtel wanted to charge VoIP(Skype,Viber etc) data at a higher rate back in 2014 December. They said that this move violates NN, and thus gave them the right to run a hate campaign against Airtel until the latter withdrew the plan. (Will come back to this case later in the post to show the malicious nature of this campaign)
The imagery used by #savetheinternet folks to get people onto their side was stark. They insinuated that if Net Neutrality was violated, the internet would be sold to the consumer like a restaurant menu, and that we would have to pay for each of our beloved websites separately. It’s worth remembering the park analogy used by the AIB folks in their first video to further their mission to scare people.
So people bought this idea of NN being synonymous with high prices. At the height of NN campaign in last April, OneIndia conducted an interesting poll on whether one would like to have data free of charges for IRCTC website(which goes against NN). 90% voted in favor of it. The bottom line is people never really understood the exact definition of NN, nor the #savetheinternet folks cared to inform. They only played on the fears of the public. But now when the freebasics ‘park’ owner is saying, forget charging for the each item you use, I’m not even going to charge you the entry fee, and people still see resistance from #savetheinternet folks, it is naturally puzzling them.
The fact of the matter is, if one goes by the original definition of treating all data packets equally, forget future violations, the current internet itself is not neutral (which is actually good). So to justify their position they keep changing the definition and often resort to rationalisations.
Content Delivery Networks(CDNs) clearly violate NN. “Paid Prioritization”, which the NN activists so abhor, is exactly what happens with CDNs. But because the technology is quite popular and a great addition to the evolving internet architecture, they know they would look silly seeking for a ban on it. So they rationalise it by saying that CDNs don’t violate NN as they benefit the end user, and that they are only against ISPs picking winners and losers. Only the gods know what that means. If CDN was not an established technology but an evolving one, I’ve no doubt in my mind that these bleeding hearts would have opposed it tooth and nail.
Arguments around zero rating was another great example of their rationalisation. When someone brought it up that zero rating is merely like toll free phone number, they sidestepped it by saying that their natures are completely different and that you can’t compare. But their whole campaign was built on analogies.
“Can you imagine a differential rate for 100 watt and 500 watt bulbs, or usage on TV or geysers?” they ask and get away with it.
If one applies his mind, it can be shown that it is not only possible, but can also be a good thing. Last summer, when we were reeling under power cuts, people in our apartment were very scared to get into the elevator as no one knew when and for how long the power would go off. In such as case, if a power company says that they will supply 24X7 power, but charge a different unit rate for the elevator, it is a Godfatheresque offer. For somethings, mere service is not enough, Quality of service(QoS) is essential.
The reason why none of these innovative pricings came to power sector is the State control of it. That’s why, electricity, instead of being a market product, is a political tool today. And the NN activists are hellbent on making the same out of the internet. Infact, with AAP’s free wifi promise it has already become one. And surprise, surprise, who were part of the task force setup by Delhi Govt to deliver free-wifi? the same #SaveTheInternet gang.
It gets worse!
Now that the flaws are evident, they are changing the definition again. One of the NN activists, Visal Mishra, a professor at Columbia university wrote a blog post on the new definition, and it got immediate endorsement from the fellow activists. With that, treating all packets equally is gone. New year brings in a new definition.
“Internet is a platform where ISPs provide no competitive advantage to specific apps/services, either through pricing or QoS”
Let us not dignify it by calling a definition, for we don’t know when they will change it again. Let’s call it a whim for now. So what does this latest whim mean? Let’s not break our heads. It is not worth it. The post itself provides you a set of properties on what it entails. One of them:
“It allows differential QoS and/or pricing as long as it is allowed in a non-discriminatory way. ISPs can prioritize all real time traffic (e.g. all voice or all Video Conference traffic in a provider agnostic way) over all non-real time traffic.”
Now. Now. This is exactly what the Airtel was trying to do an year back when they were trying to price VoIP data differently. But NN gang badmouthed Airtel and didn’t sleep until the latter backtracked. Now they say that such differential pricing doesn’t violate net neutrality. I have no words for this atrocity. In the name of Net Neutrality they have been imposing their whims and fancies on us. This is Net Dictatorship, and the incompetent mainstream media has only helped in furthering it. If #SavetheInternet folks have any shame left, they should immediately apologise to Airtel and shut their shop.
If there is one sector in India that has shown tremendous growth as well as potential, it’s definitely telecom. Many households have at least four mobile connection, even if they don’t have a water connection. No other sector in the independent India comes close to this success story. Disregarding this, the #SavetheInternet campaign attempted to and succeeded at demonizing the pioneers of this sectors by roping in uncouth jokers like AIB. To top it, some in the gang like Mahesh Murthy in his famed rebuttal to Facebook says that the government can provide internet services like any other utility, blithely ignoring what happened with Banking nationalization more than 50 years ago which has ensured that our banking services penetration are at abysmal levels. Compare this with mobile telephony penetration!