Internet is built around the idea of openness. It allows people to connect and exchange information freely, if the information or service is not illegal. Much of this is because of the idea of net neutrality. If you like the current state of the internet, you should know about net neutrality. Many web users are aware of it. But if you are not, don’t worry. We explain it here:
What is net neutrality ?
Net neutrality is an idea derived from how telephone lines have worked since the beginning of the 20th century. In case of a telephone line, you can dial any number and connect to it. It does not matter if you are calling from operator A to operator B. It doesn’t matter if you are calling a restaurant or a drug dealer. The operators neither block the access to a number nor deliberately delay connection to a particular number, unless forced by the law. Most of the countries have rules that ask telecom operators to provide an unfiltered and unrestricted phone service.
When the internet started to take off in 1980s and 1990s, there were no specific rules that asked that internet service providers (ISPs) should follow the same principle. But, mostly because telecom operators were also ISPs, they adhered to the same principle. This principle is known as net neutrality. An ISP does not control the traffic that passes its servers. When a web user connects to a website or web service, he or she gets the same speed. Data rate for Youtube videos and Facebook photos is theoretically same. Users can access any legal website or web service without any interference from an ISP.
Some countries have rules that enforce net neutrality but most don’t. Instead, the principle is followed because that is how it has always been. It is more of a norm than a law.
How did net neutrality shape the internet ?
Net neutrality has shaped the internet in two fundamental ways.
One, web users are free to connect to whatever website or service they want. ISPs do not bother with what kind of content is flowing from their servers. This has allowed the internet to grow into a truly global network and has allowed people to freely express themselves. For example, you can criticize your ISP on a blog post and the ISP will not restrict access to that post for its other subscribers even though the post may harm its business.
But more importantly, net neutrality has enabled a level playing field on the internet. To start a website, you don’t need lot of money or connections. Just host your website and you are good to go. If your service is good, it will find favour with web users. Unlike the cable TV where you have to forge alliances with cable connection providers to make sure that your channel reaches viewers, on internet you don’t have to talk to ISPs to put your website online.
This has led to creation Google, Facebook, Twitter and countless other services. All of these services had very humble beginnings. They started as a basic websites with modest resources. But they succeeded because net neutrality allowed web users to access these websites in an easy and unhindered way.
What will happen if there is no net neutrality ?
If there is no net neutrality, ISPs will have the power (and inclination) to shape internet traffic so that they can derive extra benefit from it. For example, several ISPs believe that they should be allowed to charge companies for services like YouTube and Netflix because these services consume more bandwidth compared to a normal website. Basically, these ISPs want a share in the money that YouTube or Netflix make.
Without net neutrality, the internet as we know it will not exist. Instead of free access, there could be “package plans” for consumers. For example, if you pay Rs 500, you will only be able to access websites based in India. To access international websites, you may have to pay a more. Or maybe there can be different connection speed for different type of content, depending on how much you are paying for the service and what “add-on package” you have bought.
Lack of net neutrality, will also spell doom for innovation on the web. It is possible that ISPs will charge web companies to enable faster access to their websites. Those who don’t pay may see that their websites will open slowly. This means bigger companies like Google will be able to pay more to make access to Youtube or Google+ faster for web users but a startup that wants to create a different and better video hosting site may not be able to do that.
Instead of an open and free internet, without net neutrality we are likely to get a web that has silos in it and to enter each silo, you will have to pay some “tax” to ISPs.
What is the state of net neutrality in India ?
Legally, the concept of net neutrality doesn’t exist in India. Sunil Abraham, director of Centre for internet and Society in Bangalore, says that Trai, which regulates the telecom industry, has tried to come up with some rules regarding net neutrality several times. For example it invited comments on the concept of net neutrality from industry bodies and stakeholders in 2006. But no formal rules have been formed to uphold and enforce net neutrality.
However, despite lack of formal rules, ISPs in India mostly adhere to the principal of net neutrality. There have been some incidents where Indian ISPs have ignored net neutrality but these are few and far between.
Will the concept of net neutrality survive ?
Net neutrality is sort of gentlemen’s agreement. It has survived so far because few people realized the potential of internet when it took off around 30 years ago. But now when the internet is an integral part of the society and incredibly important, ISPs across the world are trying to get the power to shape and control the traffic. But there are ways to keep net neutrality alive.
Consumers should demand that ISPs continue their hands-off approach from the internet traffic. If consumers see a violation of net neutrality, they ought to take a proactive approach and register their displeasure with the ISP. They should also reward ISPs that uphold the net neutrality.
At the same time, as Abraham says, Trai needs to come out with a set of clear and precise rules that protect the net neutrality. “We have started seeing ISPs trying to take control of the traffic that flows from their servers but Trai can regulate them. It can keep the internet open and consumer-friendly by forming rules that protect net neutrality. These are early days so it is easy to do. If ISPs manage to change the system, it may become too late,” he says.