Is online freedom at risk? Understanding the net neutrality debate
From contacting friends and family on WhatsApp to scrolling through Instagram or Facebook on a five-minute break, we use the internet for everything these days. Now imagine if you tried to send a message to a loved one on WhatsApp only to get a pop-up that you need to pay extra to send the message. What if you tried to open your Instagram feed and only saw ads and promotions from corporations, many of which might not even be relevant to you? While seemingly far-fetched, this is the reality of a world without net neutrality.
What is net neutrality? Why does it make a difference to ordinary people like you and me? Imagine a world where the information you can access on the Internet is regulated by corporations driven by profit and vested interests. That’s the dystopia many fear the US is heading towards following the recent revelation by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it plans to repeal regulations that safeguard internet access freedom in the US. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in an interview that the move was aimed at overturning the “heavy-handed regulation” of the Obama era. However, the proposal has drawn immense criticism and the ire of web activists and netizens the world over. Why? The answer lies in understanding net neutrality and all it symbolises.
What is net neutrality?
Net Neutrality is the principle by which access to any data on the internet must be treated equally. Therefore, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments regulating internet access cannot hold bias or levy varying charges on the basis of user preferences, content, websites, platforms, applications, types of attached equipment, or methods of communication.
What this translates into is easy and open access to all the information the internet has to offer, without paywalls or barriers on the basis of market competition or ISP regulation. If you have net neutrality, you can surf the web, stream movies on Netflix, send messages on WhatsApp, and more, without having to worry about paying extra for these services because they compete with your ISP’s offerings.
What has the debate been about?
In the internet’s current form, anyone can publish or receive data in a non-discriminate fashion, with no regulation on speed or accessibility. But telecommunication companies across the board have been trying to introduce tiers to regulate this free-for-all arena. In the words of George Foote, a US telecommunication lawyer, telcos want to introduce “a fast lane for everybody and a hyperspeed lane for others” into the system. Net neutrality activists say this would force users to secede their basic right to use the internet in accordance with its founding principle: equal for all.
How corporations stand to gain
The focal point of the debate is how telecoms stand to gain the unrestrained power to control traffic and content on the internet, which so far has been mostly unregulated and open for all. With the core foundation of the internet at risk, activists allege that if these measures are put into place, private players could possibly buy their way into pushing their content over rivals or competitors, disrupting the level playing field for smaller fishes.
What started the debate
What started out as an academic paper on network neutrality by Tim Wu in 2003 was thrust into the legal forum in 2005, when a US phone provider curbed its users’ privilege to make calls using a competitor’s VOIP application. The move was shot down and the phone provider fined, laying the foundation for an open internet in the USA. Following this incident, the legality of the ordinance guiding the basic principle of net neutrality was mostly forgotten by the US media, till 2014 and comedian John Oliver’s Net Neutrality piece.
The comedian, on The Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, lambasted FCC officials for “taking steps to fix the internet, which in its current form is not broken”. The piece went viral and shook the foundation of the FCC, whose website crashed after being overloaded with four million comments seeking tougher regulations.
In the intervening years, the Obama administration instated provisions to regulate internet providers - like public utilities - through federal laws that gave the FCC broad sweeping powers to oversee the conduct of telecom companies. Now, Ajit Pai’s announcement to repeal regulations, put in place by the Obama administration, could possibly hand over the keys to the virtual realm to US telecom giants, a fear shared by major internet companies like Google parent Alphabet Inc., Amazon, and Netflix.
What does this mean for the rest of the world?
The repercussions of dismantling net neutrality are likely to be felt across the globe. If a leading digital superpower successfully dismantles the foundations of a unifying phenomenon such as the internet, you can be sure that it will embolden similar voices in other countries as well.
The issue was also at the heart of much concern and debate in India in 2015 when Indian regulatory body TRAI prohibited Indian telecom giants from issuing special schemes for usage of apps and websites. Facebook’s internet.org, which was later rebranded as Freebasic, in particular, received a lot of flak after it purportedly tried to push for curbing net neutrality in India.
Following in the footstep of satirists the world-over, Indian comedy troupe All India Bakchod (AIB) also released a three-piece video takedown to get the Indian public onboard with the issue of net neutrality and the consequences of getting rid of it.
While TRAI’s orders offer a rudimentary level of net neutrality currently, several organisations have been consistently trying to find a way around this open field. If the FCC successfully repeals net neutrality in the US, it will set up a terrible precedent that could also see more appeals by corporations with vested interests against TRAI’s rulings. With India’s digital economy on the cusp of great growth, ensuring that this growth means equal and free access to the internet for all Indians is of the utmost importance.
In support of neutrality
With support for net neutrality pouring in from all corners of the world, some prominent personalities have also weighed in on the issue.
“I am very concerned about the attacks on net neutrality. Net neutrality is something that is essential for small businesses, for consumers, and it is essential to keep the freedom associated with the internet alive,” said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Even Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has voiced concerns about corporate involvement.
“Gas is a utility, so is clean water, and (internet) connectivity should be too. It’s part of life and shouldn’t have an attitude about what you use it for – just like water,” said Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
The opposition has even come in from former and present FCC members. “The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules,” said Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. Current FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel weighed in as well, “Proponents of wiping out these rules think that by allowing broadband providers more control and the ability to charge for premium access, it will spur investment. This is a dubious proposition.”
So what happens now?
The next immediate step is a vote by the FCC on December 14 on Ajit Pai’s proposal. With a Republican majority in the Commission, the proposal is almost certain to be approved. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
Telcos in the US have welcomed Pai’s proposal, stating that eliminating regulation will help generate revenue through additional broadband investments while also giving them better control over content quality. Net neutrality proponents fear the worst. We’ll continue to hope for the best and leave you with this rather relevant thought from celebrated American economist Milton Friedman, “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”